It’s the rich Indian dad who’s letting the kids gorge on junk food, not the “lazy” mother

Temptation everywhere.
Temptation everywhere.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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In the midst of the food-safety controversy over Nestle’s Maggi noodles in 2015, one Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker in the city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh came out all guns blazing against what she labelled “lazy” new-generation Indian mothers. These mothers, Usha Thakur claimed, were responsible for the nationwide popularity of the instant noodle brand, as unlike earlier generations, they didn’t feed their kids homecooked food.

Now, a survey of junk-food intake among adolescents in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, suggests that there’s little scientific basis for that opinion.

In a paper published in the Economic & Political Weekly on July 15, authors Arzi Adbi, Nafis Faizi, and Chirantan Chatterjee show that junk food intake was actually lower among children of working mothers than among those of homemakers. In fact, the more educated a mother is, the less the intake, the paper by Adbi, Faizi, and Chatterjee—respectively from INSEAD Singapore, the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad—says. 

On the other hand, junk food intake increased with an increase in the father’s education and the household’s socio-economic status, suggesting that both parents play a role in determining how kids eat, it says. Wealthier and more educated families may be imitating what they view as western consumption habits. Interestingly, in developed countries, it’s the poorer families that tend to consume unhealthy food more, the researchers say, whereas the trend appears to be reversed in India.

“Our empirical investigation reveals that the ‘Lazy Mother’ argument as the cause of the rise in junk food intake may not stand up to scientific scrutiny,” the authors write. “Driving up junk food demand are several stronger variables embedded not only in the mother’s occupation and education but also in the father’s occupation and education and in the changing socio-economic context of a developing nation, which is still working on the unfinished task of developing a trusted institutional and regulatory environment.”

The researchers collected responses from 1,416 adolescent students aged between 13 and 15 from three public schools—the city’s largest—affiliated to AMU, using the World Health Organisation’s global school-based student health survey.

The study doesn’t make any causal claims, since omitted variables, such as the personality traits and motivation of the parents, could also affect both their children’s junk-food intake and the parents’ own education and occupation. But the authors do suggest that with increasing commercial advertising that promotes unhealthy food on television and other media, the onus of improving nutrition lies with the Indian government.

“As a consequence of global consumerism, the tendency to engage in blind imitation of the developed world’s fast-food consumption patterns has risen in developing countries,” the authors write. “It is necessary for the government and the regulator to intervene and address the market failure through advertisements promoting best nutritional practices and regulations forcing effective labelling of food products.”

After all, India already has the world’s second-highest number of obese children after China, with 14.4 million at risk of weight-related health conditions.