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Updated: June 15, 2013 14:45 IST

Think out of the lunchbox

Olympia Shilpa Gerald
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When junk food becomes an everyday snack, it can trigger childhood obesity, testify Tiruchi educators and paediatricians

The uniforms are back on the streets, the timetables are out, and the new textbooks may already be getting dog ears. With schools reopening, parents have started mulling over the daunting task every morning — what to pack in the lunchbox, and perhaps, more importantly snacks.

Even as more pizza parlours and burger joints are opening up and potato chips and fizzy drinks arrive in new colours, banning junk food from schools is being talked about time and again. The warnings of child specialists to parents to restrict consumption of junk food go unheeded.

Childhood obesity

Why should junk food consumption be restricted if it keeps children quiet and content? Junk food generally is the umbrella term for all foods that are high in calorie content and low in nutritional value. These are generally high in fat, sugar, salt or are deep-fried and processed food. Child specialists are worried over increasing cases of child obesity — overweight children who consume high calorie fare and have little or no physical activity.

“Junk food contains bad cholesterol and high sodium content,” says Nandakumar, secretary of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics, Tiruchi chapter. “Obese children are likely to develop hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems as adults.” The intake of junk food is beyond the recommended daily limit. Pizzas and chips, instead of being an occasional treat, are now an everyday snack.

“Children who watch television or play games lose track of how much fast food they are consuming and are likely to eat more,” says Dr. Nandakumar. Exercise is often recommended to off set high calorie intake but children have little time for play today.

“Carbonated drinks are the number one enemy. Apart from the calories, they do not bode well for oral hygiene,” says Karunanidhi, who has attempted to replicate in India the ‘Lets Move’ Movement in the U.S., launched by the First Lady to check childhood obesity.

Health snacks

Junk food is attractively packed, cheaper, and ready to consume than healthy foods. Subsidising fruits and vegetables has made them the better choice in some countries and should do the trick here, says Dr. Karunanidhi. By encouraging fruits and tender coconut, local farmers can benefit.

While lifestyle diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and fatty liver may be long-term consequences, immediate results are constipation, gastritis, and sometimes polycystic ovarian syndrome in young girls. But issuing diktats to children will not work unless alternatives are provided during snack breaks.

“Do’s and don’t’s do not work with children,” says K.G. Meenakshi, correspondent, Sivananda Balalaya. “But actively talking about healthy food choices in science classes and carrying it over in the school’s dining rooms can help.

“Teachers at the school make it a point to go around during lunch hours and unobtrusively observe if each child has some vegetables in lunch box,” says Sivagami Sathappan of Brindavan Vidyalaya. “We suggest that parents send more vegetables rather than only rice.”

By discouraging plastics in the school, the institution has managed to keep out pre-packed snacks and cartons as snacks, Ms. Sivagami says.

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