x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

True Happy Meals for children include broccoli

Getting children to eat their vegetables probably is not as difficult as some people make out.

Amid the debris on the table and the flecks of tomato sauce caked to the wall, focused and unrelenting activity is taking place: the consumption of broccoli. Astrid will not touch anything else on her dinner plate. Touch is not quite the right word. She has picked up a spoonful of butter beans only to cast them aside. She has grabbed a slice of bread only to tear it up and hurl the pieces to the ground.

The only thing she will eat are "trees" - what the rest of the world refers to as broccoli. When she does start devouring them, the green, bulbous vegetable heads pass hand-to-mouth in quick succession. Stalks re-emerge, semi-masticated. When she has finished the helping on her plate, Astrid looks up and asks for more.

Obviously there's no problem eating broccoli. Often regarded as a "superfood", it regularly makes it into the list of top 10 foods because, among other things, it is a good source of vitamin C and folic acid. Undoubtedly, it is a fine thing to eat, yet I still find it strange. Usually the problem is coaxing children to put it in their mouths in the first place.

An article I read recently asked: "Why do people not binge on broccoli?" I hesitate to draw any wider conclusions from this single case, but at least one young child does gorge on this green, flower-topped vegetable. Persisting with this unscientific and entirely anecdotal train of thought, the question then becomes, why do people older than three not binge on broccoli?

The article from which the quotation is taken was entitled "Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-like Behavior" and was published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2009. It describes how sugar and fat consumed in bouts of excessive eating can cause changes in the brain that "are comparable to the effects of drug abuse". Food laden with sugar and larded with fat creates a heady combination: it is habit-forming and waistline bulging. Sugars eaten in concentrated spells produce "opiate-like withdrawal signs", but do not tend to make people put on much weight. Fats eaten in a similar way do not produce similar withdrawal signs, but obviously do make people pile on weight.

If you start looking at junk food in the same way as drugs such as heroin or tobacco, it helps to harden your attitude towards it, especially with your children. Water is just as good as fizzy drinks and sugary juices. Carrot sticks are as handy and portable snacks as crisps. But it's not always easy to maintain this attitude. Astrid has already developed a taste for ice cream and displays "opiate-like" fondness for expensive Swiss chocolates. Nevertheless, these remain exceptions rather than junk rules.

Earlier this month, San Francisco's board of supervisors tried to limit the attractiveness of fast food to children by passing an ordinance that requires meals sold with toys to meet certain nutritional standards. In effect, it bans Happy Meals from McDonald's and other similar take-away meals with free toys because they do not contain enough fruit, vegetables or multigrain. Some parents have welcomed this state intervention, while others have seen it as government meddling that curtails freedom of choice.

The ruling is interesting but misguided. No doubt McDonald's, like bootleggers during the Prohibition era, will work out some way to circumvent it. Given the apparent addictive nature of these types of meals, perhaps the ancillary toys are the last thing on children's minds when they demand McDonald's. Parents, not governments, must take control of what children eat. Better still, children can be guided in their decisions about what to eat. You never know, maybe they will choose the broccoli.

* Robert Carroll