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Public health minister Anna Soubry has called it “heartbreaking” that the children at greatest risk of obesity are among the poorest in the country.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, she said the most deprived children at school, used to be known as “skinny runts” because they were malnourished.
However now the reverse is true, because their parents give them “an abundance of bad food”, she said.
Ms Soubry called for parents to insist their children eat family meals and learn proper table manners.
She blamed the culture of TV dinners for eroding traditional structures of family life and parents feeding their children junk food which tends to be cheap.
Ms Soubry was speaking at a conference hosted by the Food and Drink Federation, where she told food manufacturers they must reduce the amount of fat, sugar and salt in their products voluntarily or they may find the Government forcing them to through legislation.
Department of Health figures show the poorest children are almost twice as likely to be overweight than the richest.
Figures published last month revealed 24 per cent of the most deprived 11 year-olds in England were overweight, compared with 14 per cent of children from the wealthiest homes.
Her comments come as a new survey reveals British parents are the most likely of the European countries polled to give sweets, biscuits, chocolate, and fizzy drinks as a reward for eating well or for good behaviour (39 per cent), compared to just one in ten (13 per cent) health-conscious French parents.
The survey from the European Toddler Nutrition Index showed British toddlers are the most likely in Europe to refuse food (69 per cent), with one in seven (13 per cent) rejecting some foods at every meal. They are then rewarded with biscuits and chocolate if they eat their food.
However Italian parents are almost three times more likely than British parents to give in to their toddler’s junk food cravings simply because they demand them.
The first ever European Toddler Nutrition Index, commissioned by GrowingUpMilkInfo.com, looked at the attitudes to diet and food of parents with toddlers in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Italy.
Mealtime tantrums are common in homes across Europe, with nearly one in ten (8 per cent) UK toddlers frequently flinging food they don’t like at the wall or on the floor in protest.
Leading child nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton said: “Fussy eating is a daily occurrence for most families and one that we now know is prevalent in the UK, with more children throwing food here than in any of the other European countries polled. Survey results reflect this behaviour is taking its toll on UK mums but it’s important to remember that shouting, bribing with sweet treats or TV only tends to make things worse. A calm approach to mealtimes, using encouragement, stickers, or special playtime as rewards, is more effective.”
Obesity in the UK is substantially high compared to other European countries but only a fifth of British parents expressed worry about their toddler being or becoming overweight or obese, compared with the large number of concerned parents in Italy (68 per cent) and Spain (72 per cent).
The study also found one in five British parents is unaware whether or not their child is overweight, compared to the majority of Spanish parents polled, who are more informed.
Dr Ruxton added: “With childhood obesity on the rise in the UK, it is worrying that parents are generally ill-informed about what constitutes a healthy weight range and, more importantly, the nutrients that a toddler needs for healthy development.
“Toddlers have specific nutritional requirements which need to be catered for but adult meals, particularly ready meals, which can be high in salt, are not usually suitable for toddlers. In those vital early years, toddlers need vitamins and minerals to support their development, particularly iron, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins D and A. However, due to a lack of knowledge amongst parents, there is a risk that UK toddlers will end up with inadequate levels of these.”