24 Apr 2020 Guest Blog: Exposure and access to less heathy food – how will COVID-19 affect our children’s physical health?
In our latest guest blog, our final-year student volunteer Chloé Higham-Smith explores how the current Covid-19 lockdown may have implication on our children’s health, particularly access to healthy food – and exposure to not-so-healthy food advertising
Exposure to junk food ads on TV
Children and teenagers are constantly bombarded with broadcast less healthy food and drink advertisements, and during the current coronavirus pandemic, spending more time at home inevitably means more time in front of screens whether it be on the TV, tablet or smartphone. Children already watch an average of 2 hours of TV every day , spend a further 2 hours online and 12-15 year olds spend an extra hour using media when not at school . Could this new normal see young people more exposed to less healthy food and drink marketing?
Less healthy food and drink adverts may be banned from children’s programmes, but are still shown during family TV shows, appearing during children’s peak TV viewing time between 6-9pm . Research commissioned by Obesity Health Alliance found that during ‘The Voice’ and ‘Hollyoaks’, two of the most popular family TV shows, 65% of all food and drink adverts would likely be banned from children’s TV. The shows were also sponsored by takeaway food brands which appeared at the start and end of every commercial break .
In an episode of Britain’s Got Talent (February 2017), watched by over 673,000 children, almost 30% of all food adverts shown were products high in fat, sugar and/or salt . Ironically, the Advertising Standards Authority classes Britain’s Got Talent as a programme that does not have ‘particular appeal’ to children . Research has found that children consume an additional 270 calories a week for every less healthy food or drink advert they recall seeing on television – this is the equivalent to eating an extra McDonald’s Hamburger per advert, just for recalling one advert – the likelihood is that children may be able to recall more than one advert, but several due to the volume of which they are exposed to, but also the engaging and eye-catching content . This seemingly small extra calorie intake may see harmless, but we know weight gain often occurs gradually over time, with small, frequent increases in energy intake .
Exposure to junk food ads online
Online media time will inevitably increase with long periods of time spent at home, especially among 12-15 year olds, who find it more difficult to moderate their screen time due to staying in contact with friends, something that will be particularly important over the next few months during social isolation . Unhealthy food advertising through social media is designed to be immersive and emotionally engaging, which can damage young people’s health and make it difficult to resist, particularlyfor teenagers .
Consumption of fast food and takeaways
As well as increased screen time, children could be eating more processed and takeaway meals over the next few weeks. Panic buying in supermarkets has ensued due to anxieties of food shortages, leading to less fresh and staple foods on shelves which could increase reliance on processed, long-life foods . Data from as early as 14th March, before an official lockdown was announced, showed canned pasta, canned meat and ambient soup sales increase by over 100%. Frozen food also increased by 33% and snack items by 18% . This increased dependence on processed and canned foods could lead to an unbalanced, calorific diet high in salt and devoid of certain vitamins and minerals. However, there are reports that people have been enjoying more home cooking and baking – that is, if they are able to access and afford to stock up on fresh and staple produce. Those who rely on the welfare system, often living on a week-to-week basis, cannot afford to access and stock up on healthy foods . They could be forced to rely on smaller, local and usually more expensive convenience shops with less fresh food and more processed foods lining the shelves.
Social distancing measures will result in fewer trips to the supermarket for some people, and less food in the house could make takeaways an attractive option, something to look forward to – especially for families with lots of mouths to feed. Polling data published by the Food Foundation suggests that there has been a 6% rise in the number of people trying takeaway and delivery services . All UK McDonald’s and other big-name fast food chains may have closed for now, but planning laws have been relaxed so cafe’s, restaurants and pubs can operate as hot food takeaways, many of which are situated in lower socio-economic areas. Almost 3,000 restaurants and takeaways have signed up with Just Eat since the lockdown, unlikely to be new establishments given the current lockdown, but existing businesses that may not have offered delivery previously or accessible online  and companies such as Deliveroo are promoting contact-free deliveries in response to concerns about physical contact during the pandemic . It seems as though the mentality of the weekend treat has gone – internal data from Just Eat suggests that families are ordering more takeaways than usual during the week and there has been a 36% increase in dessert orders . Whilst it is important businesses can maintain an income during lockdown and increasing access to food locally, surely making less healthy food more accessible during a health crisis is the wrong approach? 
Implications on children’s health
In the UK, a third of children are overweight or obese . The World Health Organisation has highlighted that overweight and obesity are likely to be risk factors for becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 . The combined risk factors of more exposure to broadcast unhealthy food and drink advertising, increased access to processed foods and a reduced opportunity to exercise due to the Government’s isolation measures could exacerbate current obesity levels in young people, a cause for concern during this unstable time. The NHS is under huge pressure dealing with COVID-19 – it is vitally important that we all do what we can to stay healthy to avoid further strain on the NHS by eating a healthy varied diet, staying hydrated and keeping active .
Yet all is not lost – we have seen health promoting activities popping up all over – Joe Wicks’ is streaming daily PE lessons for children online and a series of cooking shows have been filmed to provide families with inspiration on how to cook healthy, home-made meals during social distancing whilst the supermarkets are purged of some of our staple ingredients . There are also reports of waiting lists for delivery of seeds, compost and pots, indicating a growing interest in growing your own produce at home.
It will be a while until we understand the full extent of the impact that Covid-19 has had on children’s health – whilst this blog focusses on the physical impact, the impact on mental health cannot be underestimated. As this current situation is still in it’s early stages, we can only speculate on what and the extent these implications may be until there is data to evidence this. Regardless of whether we have the data or it, it is certain that now more than ever, positive health initiatives will have to fight hard to combat the powerful influence of the food advertising industry to curb the consumption of processed and takeaway foods.
Chloé is currently completing her degree in Food Development and Nutrition at John Moores University and has been undertaking a remote student placement at Food Active for the past four weeks. Chloé also volunteered with Food Active last summer, developing school resources and presentations for the GULP campaign.
 OfCom (2019) Why children spend time online [online] Available at: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2019/why-children-spend-time-online
 OfCom (2019) Children and parents media use and attitudes: annex 1 [online] Available at: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0027/134892/Children-and-Parents-Media-Use-and-Attitudes-Annex-1.pdf
 Obesity Health Alliance (2017) A ‘Watershed’ moment [online] Available at: http://obesityhealthalliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/A-Watershed-Moment-report.pdf
 Obesity Health Alliance (2019) Britain’s got a problem with junk food adverts [online] Available at: http://obesityhealthalliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/BGT-advertising-analysis-2019.pdf
 Cancer Research UK (2017) “It’s just there to trick you” [online] Available at: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/sites/default/files/its_just_there_to_trick_you_executive_summary.pdf
 Mozaffarian, D., Hao, T., Rimm, E.B., Willett, W.C. and Hu, F.B., (2011). Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. New England Journal of Medicine, 364(25), pp.2392-2404.
 Open Learn (2017) Ad’s of our time – are teens susceptible to food ads in digital media? [online] Available at: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/psychology/ads-our-time-are-teens-susceptible-food-ads-digital-media?in_menu=540107
World Health Organisation: COVID-19 and NCDs (2020) [online] Available at: https://www.worldobesity.org/news/obesity-and-covid-19-policy-statement
 Food Navigator (2020) Panic buying amid coronavirus fears: How much are we spending…and why is it a problem? [online] Available at: https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2020/03/27/Panic-buying-amid-coronavirus-fears-How-much-are-we-spending-and-why-is-it-a-problem
 The Food Foundation et al. (2020) The impact of Coronavirus on food behaviours and attitudes https://flo.uri.sh/story/262445/embed#slide-0
 NHS Digital: National Child Measurement Programme – England, 2015-16.