Impact of fast food on child nutrition

Josephine Agbonkhese and Anino Aganbi Correspondents
Gone are days when fast foods were strictly for pleasure. In today’s fast pace world where everyone appears inevitably in a rat race, meals from fast foods restaurants have become the quickest and most convenient means of filling the stomach, especially amongst well-to-do families who find local food joints otherwise known as “mama put” or “bucca” unsuitable. No thanks of course to industrialisation, traffic jams in large cities, economic depression amid growing financial burdens, and growing aspirations amongst women, which, in various homes, now translate into families enjoying less of healthy, home-cooked meals.

Home-cooked meals

Not to mention children being deprived the chance to healthy growth at a time when they should develop all round, body, brain and cells. Comprising largely of junk foods, an expert says fast foods can be dense in calories, sugar and salt, and therefore, cannot be considered nutritious, especially as they tend to trigger obesity in children; a major problem presently facing the US for example.

Reports say about one in three American children and teens is overweight or obese, making childhood obesity the number one health concern among parents in the United States. More so is the fact that obesity is causing a broad range of health problems – high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol level, that previously weren’t seen until adulthood.

There are its psychological effects of low self-esteem, negative body image and depression. More children are gradually becoming obese in Nigeria too.

In fact, to think that with fast food, it is impossible to exercise control over ingredients used and how much is used, the immediate environment where food is cooked, what oil is used, etc, makes the benefits of home-cooked meals inexhaustible.

But do mums feel guilty about their inability to constantly feed their child with good, nutritious home-cooked meals? “I sincerely feel guilty sometimes, but I really can’t help it. Even when I make resolutions every now and then about cooking before I go to bed so my children can take them to school, I get too tired to stick to them,” a middle-aged engineer said.

With Ama, an Abuja-based banker, it’s even more interesting. “I won’t lie; it’s not easy surviving as a mum these days with career and house chores. Hence, I order both breakfast and lunch from a trusted fast food restaurant for my children.

“I however try to balance what I buy them each day. Meanwhile, they always eat home-cooked meals for dinner because I cook and store in the refrigerator at weekends,” Ama said frankly.

What’s in a serving of fast food? According to a nutritionist and Belgium-trained food scientist or technologist, Mrs Ijeoma Ugwu, one serving of fast food already contains the required daily intake of salt, sugar and fat; so, by the time you eat your home-cooked meal later, you would have been over-eating.

“That’s why when you look around, especially in gatherings where there are well-to-do people, you’ll notice children are getting more obese than ever before. It is quite alarming but the truth is that our children are getting an excess of what they need daily simply because they over-indulge in fast foods and still top-up with home-cooked meals.

Unhealthy practices fast food meals can be marred by unhealthy use of oil, temperature abuse and lack of regulation,” Ugwu explained.

“There is generally no check on operators. Nobody checks what oil is used. In fact, from my discovery, an oil can be used more than eight times. Such oil has already undergone degradation and could carry a lot of free fatty acids already.

That’s why you find so many free radicals in the body when you over-indulge in them.

Temperature abuse; “Also, there is temperature abuse. Frozen chickens for example could be left outside the freezer for hours and then put back into the freezer.

That’s plenty of room for contamination of food. So, with fast food, there is high tendency for food to get contaminated either through temperature abuse or non-hygienic practices, because the sole aim is just to make money.

Regulation

However, admitting that fast foods provide the convenience needed to cope in a fast-pace society such as ours, Ugwu suggested the need for regulation.

“Nobody checks anything and there’s no standard for whatsoever. In Europe now, if you have to keep foods at a low temperature, that freezer has to be at -180C. But here, who cares? And electricity is not even there to maintain that temperature.

“I’ve been opportune to see a fast food caterer prepare food. Do you know this guy buys the most substandard products in the market, even up to broken(esha) tomatoes? Fast food operators’ reaction. Efforts to have fast food operators comment on the above allegations levelled against their products proved abortive.

A member of staff of Sweet Sensation who attempted speaking didn’t argue beyond: “Our foods are nutritious” although he asked to be contacted a week later. A Mr.Biggs’ operator who also spoke on anonymity denied that oils were used repeatedly.

Moderation,right choices

While we still hope that mothers will someday do more home-cooking, a few measures could be taken to help manoeuvre around unhealthy choices so that children get the necessary nutrients. Experts say moderation, as well as making right choices, should help. “Endeavour to always add salad to your order.”

Choose local dishes sometimes because they incorporate a higher proportion of vegetables. “Order water instead of soft drinks if you can’t have both,” an expert said. “Sandwich and a cup of milk can also be a great choice for breakfast or lunch. Also learn to order appetisers.

More importantly, whatever your choice is, it’s best to not exceed a serving of fast-food meal a day,” Ugwu advised. Some experts also say you can make a fast food stop a weekend treat only, and then engage your child in some energy-burning activities afterwards. — The Vanguard.

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