Baltimore break opens Jane Bradley’s eyes wide to the threat the US-style dietery model poses to our children
I have developed some very bad habits in the past two weeks. Holiday habits. I’ve started taking my coffee “customised”, with swirly bits of caramel, and pumps of sickly syrup. I’ve been craving pancakes and doughnuts for breakfast and hot dogs for lunch.
You’ve guessed it. I’ve been in America, where the cars are big and the portions are bigger.
I also couldn’t help but notice that the population is noticeably... somewhat larger than that of Scotland.
We may be the sick man of Europe, with obesity and heart disease at a far higher level than many other western countries, but compared to America, as a nation, we are such a far away second that we are practically Gillian McKeith.
People so large that they needed assistance to walk – sticks, leg braces, even walking frames – were a tragic, common sight on the streets of Baltimore, where I spent the past fortnight. It is a serious problem – and one which we need to avoid.
Chubby children who looked set to bloom into obese teenagers; tall, big young men who carried their weight well, but who would undoubtedly expand further as they hit early – and late – middle age.
Like the SUVs which line the streets, the standard person is just bigger over there. And as that becomes the norm, so the average weight rises – and the portion sizes increase to meet bigger appetites.
A single slice of cheesecake at popular chain The Cheesecake Factory was enough to feed three of us ordinary sized Brits to bursting point – with major regrets that we’d eaten it at all. Order a soft drink in any restaurant and it will come in a cup the size of a goldfish bowl – which is then swiftly topped up by a waiter every time you take your eye off it.
Takeaways, fast food and on-the-go snacks are on every street corner in America. The sheer extent of the presence of chains such as Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme, – which this week announced plans to open two more stores in Glasgow, in addition to its existing branches in Edinburgh Aberdeen, Dundee and elsewhere in Scotland’s biggest city – wear down even the most health conscious American until indulging becomes part of their daily routine.
At American Starbucks, request a small, ordinary coffee and you get a strange look. “You want syrup with that?” I was asked constantly. A few days later and I was worn down. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. One iced caramel macchiato and an unnecessary 146 calories a pop coming right up.
Of course, these things are all available at Starbucks in the UK. But they are not, not yet anyway, quite so ubiquitous. A post-holiday blues pick me up at Starbucks at Edinburgh’s Fort Kinnaird on Sunday revealed that the orders are generally quite different, with requests for standard, milky coffees and plain teas far outnumbering the caramelised, syrupy concoctions universally demanded by Americans.
Frosted Wheats (those little mini Shredded Wheats covered in lumpy, white frosting) are the healthy option in the breakfast cereal aisle. Froot Loops, with their bright colours, which were removed from the already niche UK market last year due to a reported lack of demand for the cereal, are a more common sight at the breakfast table; as is a cereal made by Reese’s – yes, they of the Peanut Butter cups, which is “based” on the original candy. First thing in the morning.
The supermarkets are crammed with convenience foods. Why buy fresh when you can have a processed option? Why buy whole blocks of cheese when you can have eighteen kinds of pre-grated? Why buy plain cream cheese when you can get blueberry flavour? Black cherry? Why have a basic product when you can have a souped up one? Extra stuff. Extra stuff in everything.
Meanwhile, what the US model shows, is that it is not easy to teach youngsters healthy eating habits, when such unhealthy temptations are in constant sight. Children’s menus universally consist of “chicken tenders” (breaded, fried goujons) or hot dogs, with a side of chips or crisps and barely a vegetable in sight.
However, while we can pat ourselves on the backs and congratulate ourselves that we have not embraced American eating habits just yet, we are at a high risk of following suit.
A UK study out this week from the Infant and Toddler Forum showed that 80 per cent of parents are putting their children in danger of obesity by offering them portion sizes which are far too large for their tiny bodies.
A standard portion size of say, spaghetti bolognese for a pre-schooler, should total no more than a few spoonfuls of food. Meanwhile, just four or five crisps should constitute a serving and six to eight small chocolate buttons.
While I think I’ve got the crisps and chocolate down right: my daughter considers it a major treat when she gets two chocolate buttons – one for each hand – as a bribe for her bi-weekly fingernail cutting session – the meal portion guidelines terrified me.
If I offered that to my four-year-old daughter, who has a healthy appetite for her age, she would wolf it down in two seconds and ask why the starter was so small and what was she having for main course.
Yet these guidelines are probably right and even though I think I am offering her healthy food, I know I am overfeeding her. I am a feeder.
Time to ditch the holiday habits, cut the portion sizes and stave off an American-style diet for that bit longer.