Sports Sponsors are turning our kids into junk food freaks

Sports sponsors are turning our kids into junk food freaks, by Joanne Dwyer - 12th May 2004
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

The half-time oranges have been replaced by chocolate bars, putting children well on the road to obesity, writes Joanne Dwyer.

As a nation we are battling with childhood obesity. Authorities are looking to children's sport as the answer and parents are responding enthusiastically. However, a seedy side of children's sport is firmly and quietly marking its territory, potentially challenging the health it promises.

Children have long loved junk food. And naturally, they enjoy eating after a good sports game. But in recent times, the link between bad food and exercise seems to have grown stronger, as part of an emerging new culture in children's sport. Changes in attitudes to food have seen the humble orange at half-time replaced by lollies, chocolates, doughnuts and soft drinks. At Saturday morning soccer games, six-year-olds can be spotted downing red frogs, eating chips and sucking on Wizz Fizz.

Comments such as "I've got a lollipop for you in my bag after the game" can be heard being called out from the sideline. It's not uncommon to see children back on the field, finishing off those chewier lollies from half-time.

The junk food epidemic is invading children's sport on all fronts. Sports club canteens are filled with a smorgasbord of sugar and fat dance teachers are using lollies to keep order during practice sessions.

At a very early age children are learning that high fat and high sugar treats are part of sport and the reason for trying - or the expectation for simply turning up.

The multinationals are also in on the action and are making a fat living. With McDonald's "encouragement awards" children are rewarded for playing well with some high-fat foods - free chips, hash browns or sundaes over four weeks, on the condition that a burger is bought. No mention of Salads Plus on these awards.

Cadbury has also got in on the game. Its latest international campaign, endorsed by the British Minister for Sports, aims to fight childhood obesity.

The campaign entitled "Get Active" encourages schoolchildren to buy chocolate bars and collect wrapper tokens to exchange for free sports equipment for their school. With 5440 wrappers a school can buy a set of volleyball net posts. That's a million calories! How much volleyball would you need to play to burn that off?

To put their reward system in health terms, the 160 million tokens available equate to nearly 2 million kilograms of fat. All in the name of getting fit and healthy.

While this campaign hasn't hit Australian shores, it appears that more and more junk food companies are being welcomed by sporting associations.

Newcomer Krispy Kreme, the doughnut maker, has quickly made an impact. Only months ago, we were publicly questioning whether with our dietary problems, we should be allowing such high-fat doughnuts onto our shores. This year, however, many sporting associations are asking their young players to sell them as a fund-raiser.

I know of at least three sports groups in the Sutherland Shire which ask parents to buy 12 doughnuts for $11 - they recommend every family buy five dozen - and take a cut of the profits made.

We all now know that a poor diet leads to children becoming overweight and obese, affecting the child both in the early years of life as well as contributing to heart disease, stroke and other health issues later in life.

However, the problem seems to be getting worse.

Not only is childhood obesity continuing to rise at an alarming rate, but a recent Australian study has shown that an unhealthy lifestyle is causing hardening of the arteries in children as young as six.

Government initiatives are looking to schools to address the problem. The Government's recent Healthy Canteen campaign is looking at getting junk food out of our school tuckshops by the end of the year.

What must be considered, however, is that children don't just learn at school and they don't just learn from teachers. The attitudes of parents and other significant people in a child's life send powerful messages.

Whether it's for reward or fund-raising purposes, a coach endorsing junk food sends a powerful message to a five- year-old.

The picture in our minds as adults is that we are providing a wonderful healthy lifestyle for our children with weekend sports and weekday training. That we are helping them to establish healthy patterns both for now and for later life. In reality we're painting a different picture.

Endorsing junk food in this "healthy" context is crossing out the benefits. Junk food is the seedy side of children's sport. If we aim to really tackle the childhood obesity problem we need to address the problem on all fronts.

Joanne Dwyer is a lecturer at the School of Education and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Western Sydney.


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