Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 August 2004
Issue No. 704
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What we eat

Bad eating habits are producing a generation of sickly Egyptians. Reem Leila reports on the harms of junk food

Click to view caption
Meals like this are popular but unhealthy

Mothers feeding their children on pizza and soda pop are probably setting them up for a lifetime of bad health. The years between five-14 years, being times steady growth, when kids should learn that what they eat affects how grow, feel behave.

But this does not seem to be happening nearly enough. Ahmed Kotb, pediatrician at Qasr Al-Aini Hospital, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "seven children during the past three months were treated for apnea, a sleep disorder caused when air paths are blocked by folds of fat. In other words, they were choked by their own fat," says Kotb.

Egyptian teenagers now drink threefold the amount of soda as milk. According to orthopedic specialist Hazem Abdel-Azim, a report conducted by the National Research Centre in 2002 revealed that 10 per cent of teenage males between the age of 13 and 18 drink seven or more soda cans per day, while 10 per cent of teenage females drink around five cans per day. "Soda drinkers are less likely to get the recommended levels of vitamin A, calcium and magnesium," he explained pointing out that soda pop is one of the main nutritional reasons why people suffer both weakened bones and caffeine dependence.

"Girls who drink cola are about five times more likely to suffer bone fractures than girls who do not. Excessive consumption of soda drinks leads to early osteoporosis," states Abdel-Azim. Further, "it parallels alcohol in one profound similarity. If one drinks all that sugar the appetite is relatively suppressed for nourishing foods like vegetables and that results in nutritional deficiencies."

Osteoporosis and hypertension are but some of the diseases that have their earliest roots in childhood when lifelong eating habits are formed. Poor diet can slow growth, decay teeth and sow the seeds of infirmity and debilitating diseases that ultimately lead to death.

All specialists agree: the danger lies in the proliferation of junk food options and a lack of food management skills. The situation is compounded when a majority of working mothers with school-age children are burdened with exhausting commutes, long work hours and stress, limiting the time they get to spend on their children's care. Traditional food skills are not passed on automatically from parent to child. Most people have forgotten that the primary reason for eating is nourishment.

Ahmed Zayed, professor of sociology at Cairo University, explains that nowadays "Egyptian culture fosters poor eating habits. Television commercials and supermarkets disseminate a wide variety of junk foods and drinks, attractively packaged and often tagged with a tempting gift."

Food manufacturers provoke us with new snack foods everyday. While it is not necessarily harmful to eat these foods occasionally, when most of the food you consume is junk food, the effects are devastating.

As far as the food business is concerned there are no ethical limits when profit is at stake. Junk food advertisements target individuals as young as three years old. Gamal Mokhtar, owner of an advertisement company, says that in the year 2000, soda and junk food businesses spent around LE20 billion in Egypt on campaigns to promote their products. Unfortunately junk food is often addictive. High in sugar (for example, soda, candy, ice cream and most pastries), high in fat (for instance, burgers, pizza, hot dogs, French fries and most fried foods) or high in salt (for instance, potato chips), the body becomes accustomed to, and begins to need, such extremes.

One problem is a lack of understanding and concern for food labels. A box of fruit juice is bought at face value although most of what is sold on the market everyday is loaded with sugar, artificially flavoured and contains very little pure juice.

Such artificial ingredients often add hundreds of extra calories to a diet. Dietitian Mostafa Sari explains that for each increase of 250 calories in a child's daily diet (which should be around 1970 calories for boys and 1740 calories for girls), there is a 20 per cent increased risk of death from certain cancers. "The body desires certain vitamins and minerals to function properly. But, when you eat a poor diet, you severely impair the body's ability to fight off toxins and diseased cells. As a result, those cells can become cancerous," Sari says. "33.7 per cent of teenagers and 17 per cent of children in Egypt," he continues, "are obese. Teenagers today are almost three times as likely to be overweight as they were 20 years ago."

According to the specialists, obesity is fast approaching the number one preventable cause of death. It can also cause many other health complications including cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes and sleep apnea.

Top 10 junk foods to be avoided:

ï French fries: Deep-frying in oil adds the carcinogen acrylamide into potatoes and most potato chips.

ï Processed breakfast cereals: Avoid those that use genetically modified grains. They are packed with refined sugar and offer little protein value.

ï Soda drinks: contain aspartame leading to bone weakening as it depletes them of calcium.

ï Decaffeinated coffee: Some decaffeination processes utilise filtration methods that impart active chlorine into the coffee leading to a higher incidence of rheumatoid arthritis.

ï White bread: It is made of refined flour stripped of vitamins, fiber, protein and minerals. Refined liquid sugar is added.

ï Commercial pizza: High in sodium, carbohydrates and fats, pizza is heated to over 180 degrees Celsius, destroying a great deal of the nutrient value. Making your own, by using pure flour, vegetables, minimising cheese and sodium, would be much better.

ï Donuts: Deep fried white bread coated with sugar is a bad combination.

ï Fruit drinks: Avoid, as they are mostly water and sugar with colourings and flavourings.

ï Low fat ice cream: It is made of genetically modified soy. Taking fat out of the ice cream drives up the glycemic index. Either eat ice cream or don't.

ï Chocolate and candies: They contain excessive amounts of caffeine and sugar with no actual nutritious value.

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