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How a broken food system feeds childhood obesity and undernutrition

Tina Moffat discusses her new book, Small Bites–Biocultural Dimension of Children's Food and Nutrition.

May 30, 2022

If you’re a parent who has ever lamented about how or what to feed your children, chances are you’re not alone.

In a world where food and food information seem more readily available to the consumer than ever before, why is there still so much uncertainty around childhood nutrition?

Tina Moffat, Associate Professor, Anthropology, explores child feeding in her new book, Small Bites–Biocultural Dimension of Children's Food and Nutrition. Moffat has spent years researching pediatric health issues, including childhood obesity and undernutrition, in places like Canada and Nepal. She believes these issues result from a broken food system that has removed children from the centre of the issue.

“For good reason, we’re concerned about both obesity and undernutrition in children, but our approach continues to be very individualistic and that must change because it is simply not working,” says Moffat.

Moffat highlights that one in six children in Canada are living in food-insecure households, but rather than mandating living wages and providing more income supports for families, society expects them to rely on charitable programs like food banks and school breakfast clubs.  

In reference to child obesity, she mentions that traditional weight-loss intervention programs, which aim to teach individuals how to lose weight through diet and exercise, do not produce long-term results.

“Research shows that intervention programs designed for overweight children can cause more harm than good because they create a stigma around them and their weight.

“These programs can’t overcome the fact that food companies target them and their parents with advertising for highly processed foods. These ads exploit parents’ fears of not feeding their children adequately and deceptively market items that claim to be nutritional but have significant amounts of added sugar and sodium.”

Moffat believes a solution to these problems must include the involvement of government and the wider society. Interventions can vary but could include introducing a national school feeding program. As of 2022, Canada is the only G7 country that does not have a government-funded school feeding program in public schools.

“Children spend much of their lives in school and we really should take school feeding more seriously, especially considering the rise in chronic non-communicable diseases like diabetes.

“We can’t tackle these issues without looking at nutrition, but we shouldn’t wait until people are 60 years old to begin teaching them about food. We should start educating them about nutrition when they’re children, or even when parents conceive.”

Small Bites–Biocultural Dimension of Children's Food and Nutrition is available now from UBC Press, Chapters Indigo, and Amazon