Jane Bradley: 5-year-old child rumbles junk food industry's evil plan

My five-year-old helped me realise the problem of junk food in leisure centres, writes Jane Bradley.
Vending machines full of sweets and crisps are common sights in leisure centres (Picture: PA)Vending machines full of sweets and crisps are common sights in leisure centres (Picture: PA)
Vending machines full of sweets and crisps are common sights in leisure centres (Picture: PA)

I was having a chat with my daughter about healthy eating the other day. For a five-year-old, she has a fairly decent grasp on it.

Although she loves a sweet treat or a bag of crisps as much as the next child, she knows they should be something eaten occasionally as treat, not everyday fuel. That, of course, doesn’t stop her asking for them. She loves sport, so I was explaining that top athletes wouldn’t eat a lot of junk food because they want their bodies to be in the best shape possible to run faster or play their sport better. She looked confused at that.

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“So athletes wouldn’t eat junk food,” she said, meaning cooked food such as burgers, pizzas and so on. “But they are allowed to eat lots of crisps and chocolates and fizzy drinks, aren’t they?”

Then I was the confused one, until she explained. When she comes out of her various sports clubs, she often begs for a treat from the leisure centre vending machine. The vast majority of the time, I say no, having brought something healthier from home. What I hadn’t realised was that she had thought because the leisure centre was offering these foods – which she knows are usually off-limits – they were something that athletes should eat after they have played sport.

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Of course, now it seems obvious. She sees adults – often healthy-looking, sporty adults – coming out of the gym in their shorts and trainers and heading straight to the vending machines to buy bags of crisps and chocolate bars. Why wouldn’t she think that was the norm?

The fact that the presence of these vending machines in leisure centres links unhealthy eating and sport together in children’s minds is worrying. NHS Scotland figures, published at the end of last year, showed that almost a quarter of primary one pupils are at risk of being overweight or obese. This is a serious problem, not only for the children themselves, but because of the future burden on our already groaning health service. I have ranted in this column many times about the unhealthy eating message which our pizza-packed school lunch menus offer. This is no better. Getting children into leisure centres is a positive step. Set them up for a lifetime of enjoying sports from a young age and we are going a long way towards encouraging them to have a healthy lifestyle. Yet if that then goes hand-in-hand with eating unhealthy foods – presumably with the attitude that we’ve burned it off in the gym, so why not treat ourselves – it is a case of two steps forwards and one back.

At our local leisure centres, run by independent trust Edinburgh Leisure, the machines are stuffed to the brim with what should be occasional treats, not fuel for people doing sport: crisps, sweets and chocolate. While water is often on offer, so are so-called “energy drinks” and bottles of fizzy pop. A few isolated machines at one centre, I have noticed, now also offer a few “healthier”, but still high-sugar, fruit-based snacks, such as Nakd bars, on top of the standard fare. It’s a step forward, I suppose.

Of course, Edinburgh’s council-run centres are not the only culprits. Friends in Glasgow, Midlothian and Aberdeenshire say the situation is the same at their local sports halls – and describe exactly the same issue in their young children running to admire the tempting treats locked away behind the glass door. Edinburgh Leisure tells me that the cafes it operates in its venues have healthy options and that “healthy drinks” are going to make up 80 per cent of all vending machine beverage offering in a trial starting in May, but admits that balancing consumer demand and a healthy eating message has been tricky.

“With our vending machines, traditionally it has proved difficult to get the balance correct between healthy options and customer preference,” a spokeswoman said.

I’m sure other sports organisations think similarly. But we simply cannot afford to let this happen.

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I can guarantee that this column will be criticised by people claiming “Nanny State” and telling me that people should be able to choose to eat what they want. And of course, that is true. If you want a packet of crisps or a can of Coke after going to the gym, there is nothing to stop you bringing one with you. They are available at all retail outlets.

But to offer such things actually at sports centres, to make the idea of going to the swimming pool or a football class synonymous with eating junk food – that just seems to defeat the purpose of doing sport.

Junk food ads have long been banned on TV for programmes aimed at children. A similar move was recently introduced for programmes and websites predominently used by youngsters. At a governmental level, we accept this is a major issue. But yet locally, we let this kind of thing continue.

It doesn’t help that the London 2012 Olympic Games – arguably the most high-profile sporting event ever to take place on British soil – had McDonalds as its main sponsor, complete with a 1,500-seater McDonalds restaurant in the Olympic village. Of course, this wasn’t a decision specific to London 2012: the fast food giant had a 41-year sponsorship history with the Olympic Games, which has now, thankfully, come to an end. If you look at this year’s World Cup sponsorship list, however, the American chain is still there, while Coca Cola is a key partner for the whole of the international governing body of football, FIFA. It would be easy to change this situation, yet there does not seem to be the impetus. Presumably vending machines are a decent source of income for the organisations which run the leisure centres – and it is true that were healthy snacks on offer, people may be less likely to buy them than the tempting treats, thus reducing their income.

Yet if this means we cut down on snacking in general, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for society. Leisure centres’ bean counters might just have to take the hit for the team.