Although most psychology students aspire to consult, Santi F. Gómez (Cornellà de Llobregat, 40 years old) was “lucky” to train “with great social and health psychologists” at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. “I wanted my action to have a more global impact, in the community,” this psychologist, an expert in public health and a doctor in biomedicine, told EL PAÍS by videoconference. “At that time, the exit for the clinic was a private practice. I come from a very humble family and my parents have had to make a lot of efforts to give us studies. It made me very uncomfortable to think that my action would revert only to those who can afford to pay the consultation”, acknowledges the also associate professor at the University of Lleida.
Planting that seed, “a story of coincidences” made him the global director of research and programs of the Gasol Foundation, created to fight childhood obesity by basketball stars Marc and Pau Gasol. In 2016, when he had not yet defended his doctoral thesis on the determinants and preventive interventions of this silent pandemic, the foundation was looking for a principal investigator. “And, of course, my profile matched. Also, when my family migrated from Extremadura to Catalonia, they located their residence in the municipality where the foundation is located, Sant Boi de Llobregat. In those cases, you have to let yourself go and we have made a very nice project grow”.
Among its latest fruits is the report Advertising, food and children’s rights in Spain (carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and UNICEF Spain), which urges regulation of unhealthy food products aimed at minors. Despite the fact that this is established by the National Strategic Plan for the Reduction of Childhood Obesity and recommended by the WHO, the regulations that intended to approve Consumption remain in a drawer, due to the resistance of the Ministry of Agriculture and the complaints of the sector, which consider that enough with the self-regulation of the industry. “There has not been enough political will,” criticized the head of Consumption, Alberto Garzón, during the presentation of the report on July 5. “The influence and capacity that certain economic powers have in the field of food is too much,” he settled.
Ask. Do we give enough importance to childhood problems?
Answer. I have noticed a progression in the importance given, especially, to the epidemic of childhood obesity. But still more should be given. A mature society knows how to protect its childhood and in many countries many challenges remain to be addressed.
Q. According to the latest edition of the Pasos study, which you have coordinated and whose final results have just been presented, one in three minors between the ages of 8 and 16 is overweight or obese, one of the worst figures in Europe. What’s new?
R. We have deepened the analysis presented in February. In addition to this data, the percentage of children who report feeling worried, sad or unhappy is 12% higher than in the 2019 edition. On the other hand, socioeconomic inequalities are increasing for most lifestyle indicators and for the obesity. The deterioration is greater for boys and girls who live in places with lower average income or where there is more child poverty. Health promotion initiatives must take into account this socioeconomic gradient. Also gender, another axis of inequality. Girls’ starting level on screen use was lower than boys’, but they tend to even out. Among them, the use of screens grows much faster and they also present a more unfavorable evolution in relation to feeling worried, sad or unhappy.
Q. Why does living in a poor neighborhood make it easier for a girl or a boy to have obesity?
R. On the one hand, it is the environment. In neighborhoods with a lower socioeconomic level there is less accessibility to fresh, healthy and cheap food. It is more common for their businesses to bet on distributing ultra-processed, bottled, packaged or preserved products because they do not spoil and they do not have losses. On the other hand, the accessibility to fruits or vegetables is less. On the other hand, in the last two decades in Spain the price of healthy foods has increased to a greater extent than that of unhealthy ones, a phenomenon that has accelerated with the price crisis. This makes vulnerable families have more barriers to access healthy food because industrial pastries tend to maintain more stable prices.
Q. How do habitability conditions influence?
R. Let’s think about how the home of someone who lives in a situation of socioeconomic vulnerability is structured. The phenomenon of sharing a flat has grown, people are living more and more crowded together. Maybe they no longer have a whole fridge, but have to share it. And perhaps they don’t have a dining room to encourage healthy eating habits, but each family has to eat in their room without a table and comfortable chairs. In this context, it is easier for them not to be given a plate of vegetables, but rather a sandwich or a packaged product. It is also more difficult to maintain sleep habits. They tend to be buildings that are worse conditioned at the climatic level, which makes it very cold in winter and very hot in summer. This makes it difficult for boys and girls to sleep and introduces dysfunctions at the hormonal or mood level. They are also neighborhoods where there is usually more noise on the street. It is not the same to live in an apartment building without trees around it than in a house with a garden, where if the garbage truck passes by nobody knows.
The marketing of unhealthy foods determines the level of desire and acceptance of those products
Q. How does it affect your mood?
A. Stress levels are higher because of the jobs that these people do. It is not the same to work in the liberal professions than in a factory, 8 hours a day repeating a movement. This stress is transmitted to the children because there is a greater probability of arguments in the family or of wanting to go home and not think about anything. To connect the TV, instead of doing healthy activities.
Q. And what is the impact on physical activity?
R. In those neighborhoods there are also fewer sports facilities and a lower level of perceived security. In some cases, it is objective; in others, it is subjective, a matter of mistrust in the other communities that share the same streets and buildings. There could be a very big discussion there, but it is a fact that the perceived level of security is lower, which makes boys and girls do less physical activity in the street. If you have a garden around the house, the probability that you run or have a bicycle is greater, it is much easier to do physical activity in an environment of high socioeconomic level. And there is also an economic issue, the extracurricular activities have a cost. If a boy or girl likes dance, paying for the classes is very expensive; or the material to practice other physical-sporting activities that require, at least, shoes.
Q. How are food tastes shaped in that environment?
A. Food awakens the pleasure areas at the brain level. Families in a situation of socioeconomic vulnerability also want to give satisfaction to their boys and girls and, sometimes, give them food that can achieve it quickly: an ice cream, a candy bar or go to McDonald’s one day. It is a moment of family connection, your child has a good time and they feel that they are giving him something that makes him happy. But the consequence that it has on a psychological level on that boy or girl who, in her head, is associating well-being with the consumption of products that do not benefit, is not dimensioned.
Q. According to your report on the marketing of unhealthy foods, 80% of minors receive advertising impacts, and this greater exposure increases their consumption.
A. Yes, that marketing determines the level of desire and acceptance of those foods. For this reason, scientific societies and international organizations are demanding that governments regulate this advertising.
Q. The draft of the Royal Decree that the Ministry of Consumption prepared for this purpose has not gone ahead due to the reluctance of the Minister of Agriculture and the producers, who advocate self-regulation of the industry. However, is it true that this self-regulation does not work?
R. It has been shown that it does not work in Spain and also internationally, the scientific evidence is overwhelming and forceful. It saddens me that, because adults are not able to reach an agreement, the rights of children remain unprotected. The WHO, UNICEF, scientific societies and organizations such as the Fundación Gasol, CEAPA (Spanish Confederation of Associations of Parents of Students), Justicia Alimentaria or the Spanish Association Against Cancer, request a regulation with sanctioning capacity if the industry asks for it. jump. We are going to continue to provide scientific evidence and apply all possible pressure so that this measure is adopted as soon as possible.
Among girls, the use of screens is growing much faster, as is the percentage of those who report feeling worried, sad or unhappy.
Q. How does the use of screens influence exposure to this marketing?
R. Proportionally, minors who use screens for more minutes per day, such as television, computers or smartphones, are the most exposed to unhealthy food and drink advertising.
Q. Your estimate is disturbing, according to which between the ages of 8 and 16 a girl or boy exposed to advertising ingests 370,000 kilocalories and 23 additional kilograms of sugar each year, which come from these harmful products.
A. Indeed, boys and girls exposed to specific advertising for fast food, sugary drinks, pastries or industrial pastries, and salty snacks also ingest on average more kilocalories, more sugar, and more sodium than those that come from those same products. .
Q. In its report My First Poison, the NGO Alimentary Justice criticized the marketing that promotes high-tech and processed infant food as opposed to homemade food, which is much healthier. Is there also toxic advertising aimed at mothers and fathers?
A. Sure, and this marketing is more likely to penetrate families with a lower economic level because they tend to have reached a lower academic level. Studying allows you to build critical capacity and those who have not had that possibility are more vulnerable to industry publicity. If they are told on TV or on Instagram that giving their child that food is good, they will give it to them. Or, rather than food, I prefer to call it a product. If, in addition, this is combined with the fact that your son or daughter is exposed to that advertising and they ask for that product when they go to the supermarket, they end up consuming it.
Q. What would you ask of the new government to be formed in Spain?
R. That bets on children’s health. For every euro invested in promoting children’s health, six would be recovered in the long term. It is hard for me to think that there are political parties that do not want to promote the welfare and quality of life of society. It has a positive impact on many aspects, such as the economy, well-being and social cohesion, beyond one’s own health and what remains within the walls of a health center.
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