What are we eating and feeding our children? Dr Chris Van Tulleken explores in his latest BBC documentary

The documentary looks at how ultra-processed food is being fed to children across the globe, and has become a cause of increasing childhood obesity in different countries

Ayesha Tabassum Published :  23rd September 2021 04:25 PM   |   Published :   |  23rd September 2021 04:25 PM
Dr Chris Van Tulleken

Dr Chris Van Tulleken

The consistent lockdowns that had become the norm last year and early this year across the globe threw our routine out of gear. Not just adults, even children bore the brunt of it. From lesser physical activity, more screentime to unplanned diets, most of us ended up leading an unhealthy lifestyle. However, feeding the right foods to children has been a significant challenge not just for parents but also for nations across the world. Dr Chris Van Tulleken, the infectious diseases doctor at UCLH and one of BBC's leading science and TV presenter most well-known for the BBC One documentary Surviving the Virus: My Brother & Me, is back with a new documentary on children's eating disorders and obesity. In an exclusive interview with Indulge, he throws more light on the issue and tells us what to expect from his new production titled, What Are We Feeding Our Kids?

What prompted you to think of investigating and exploring this idea of what we are feeding our kids?
In the UK child, obesity is the most important health problem in the country. As my children grow older, they are at risk and their friends are at risk and it's going to cost everyone a lot of money because it’s an incurable problem. Children with obesity become adults, and life as an obese person is very hard. This is not just a moral problem but also an economic problem as we spend huge chunks of our budget on it. And that's terrible. 

Is this entirely focused on children in the UK or have you approached it with a global perspective and looked at children from other countries?
It is very important to look at a global perspective through this program. We travelled to Brazil where scientists discovered ultra-processed food and we follow an international food company's trucks all over the country. This particular company has made a floating shop that goes up the Amazon River and sells sweets and candy to the poor people living in this region. These are people who live in the forest and we see terrible rates of obesity in the Amazon rain forest as a result of the actions of this company. It is happening in India too. Major food corporations are taking over the diets of the middle class and increasingly low-income families. This has happened a long time ago in the UK and is happening in Africa and East Asia as well. Hence this is a global problem.

Is the focus only on fast foods - because this is something that has already been explored in documentaries like Super Size Me?
The focus is on a category of food called ultra-processed foods. There's a long, formal definition of these foods that are recognized by the UN food and agriculture organisation. But to put it across in a simple manner, any food wrapped in plastic that has an ingredient you don't find in a domestic kitchen is ultra-processed food. In the UK all our sandwiches are made of bread that's made with our cereals. It's food that is around us and is not just burgers and chips. This is a problem. Many of us think it is healthy and this is the important thing that we are exploring on the show.

What topics and issues do you cover in the show?
We were going to cover a lot of different topics about exercise and genetics. But research says that there is only one cause of childhood obesity and that is ultra-processed food. Research says that there is only one cause of childhood obesity and that is ultra-processed food. What Are We Feeding Our Kids? is a documentary exploring this subject. It looks at how this food is made, how it's marketed, and why it drives obesity. This food is very easily digested. It's very calorie-dense, and it's marketed to children with colourful and "friendly" boxes and with health claims about it being very good for the body. But none of this is true.

Michelle Obama has been a big advocate of feeding American children healthy and wholesome food. She even started the garden in the White House, which she has vividly described in her autobiography. She's even started her own TV show.  Have you taken any cues from her initiative?
I think that what Michelle Obama is doing is so powerful and good. She's such a force for good in the world, but there is one thing that I think no other voices say, which is that the food industry is like the tobacco industry. The only food that's available is ultra-processed, and the only food most people can afford is ultra-processed. When people are told that ultra-processed food is healthy for them, by the companies that make it, there is no choice. And so, for decades doctors like me and health promoters, like Michelle Obama have been saying, look, eat vegetables, eat dairy, eat healthy foods, eat fruit, but that is simply not a choice that many people can make, and these ultra-processed foods are addictive. Unless people take an explicitly anti-industry stance where you say this isn't an industry that needs regulation and these foods need warning labels on them, and they must not be sold to children, the problem will not go away.  

How do you think the pandemic has impacted children's food habits and eating patterns? Do you discuss this in the show?
A little bit, I published an article in The Lancet about how, food companies have used the pandemic to market, infant formula, which is ultra-processed. And this happened a lot in India, South Asia, and East Asia. The pandemic has been a great opportunity for food companies. Everyone's been at home, everyone's been bored, everyone's wanted something comforting. And so, we, prefer ultra-processed foods because they're cheap and available and they make us feel well. Actually, they make us feel very bad, but they give us a brief moment of joy a bit like alcohol and cigarette consumption.

What are you working on next?
A bigger project about the food industry. I'm writing a book about ultra-processed food, and I’m trying to look at setting up a not-for-profit food company that will supply cheap, good food, which will not be incentivised in the same way as products by major food corporations. 

Premieres on September 24, 8 pm. On Sony BBC Earth in India