Food: The best healthy snacks teens will actually want to eat



Positive alternatives to try, as new research suggests ultra-processed foods may be a ‘gateway’ to more unhealthy eating.

It can be tough to get teenagers to eat healthily, but reaching for ultra-processed alternatives could be a slippery slope.

New research suggests sweets, pastries and desserts could be “gateway” foods for teens, leading them to eat higher quantities of other unhealthy foods.

The study – presented at the American Heart Association’s Hypertension Scientific Sessions in San Diego – was led by Maria Balhara, a 16-year-old student at Broward College in Davie, Florida, who says: “Ultra-processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, or engineered to be as addictive as possible. They’re also cheap and convenient, which makes them hard to resist. Most people are eating too many of these foods without realising it.”

Balhara gathered data on how frequently 315 teens consumed 12 types of ultra-processed foods (including chips, chocolate and white bread) over a period of eight weeks, along with their estimated consumption of the same foods in 2019 (before the pandemic). She found candy, pre-packaged pastries and frozen desserts acted as a possible “gateway” to driving consumption of other ultra-processed foods. The logic works the other way as well – for example, decreased consumption of white bread was associated with a 9% decrease in consumption of all other ultra-processed foods.

“The good news is that even small changes, such as reducing how often you eat a few gateway foods, may reduce overall consumption of unhealthy foods and have a big impact on your overall health,” says Balhara.

Kate Shilland, registered sports and public health nutritionist at Performance Canteen (performancecanteen.co.uk), says: “People tend to think snacking is bad. It’s not, it’s good. Teens need to eat regularly to keep blood sugar levels stable and to keep concentration and mood up. They are not only studying, playing sport (or PlayStation) but growing too – this requires regular energy.”

Helena Gibson-Moore, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation (nutrition.org.uk), agrees, saying: “If teenagers are hungry between meals, then healthy snacks can form part of a healthy, balanced diet, and can be a useful way for teenagers to get essential nutrients like protein, fibre, and vitamins and minerals they need for good health.”

For both, it’s all about what you snack on. Shilland says: “Protein and fibre-rich carbs are best to include, as they’ve been shown to keep you fuller and more satisfied for longer.” That doesn’t mean you should ban teens from having the odd treat, though, Shilland adds: “It is also important not to make teens feel guilty if it is more of a biscuit kind of day. We all have them, and showing disapproval or making them feel guilty about what they are eating generally leads to less positive behaviours around food.”

Snacking on fruit and veg is always a good idea, but if that doesn’t exactly set your teen’s world alight, here are some other options to try…

Nuts and seeds

Gibson-Moore recommends having a small handful of unsalted mixed nuts or seeds, as they “provide protein, fibre and healthy fats”.

Buying nuts from the supermarket can add up, so why not bulk-buy different varieties online to save some money? You could even make your own mixes of nuts and seeds – perfect for on-the-go snacking.

Cottage cheese – but not as you know it

Cottage cheese might not sound like the world’s most appealing snack, but it’s all about what you do with it. Shilland’s on a mission “to make cottage cheese more appealing”, saying: “Mixed with edamame/peas/spring onion and avocado and chilli flakes, or topped with cherry tomatoes and dukkha spice is amazing.”

It’s the perfect snack, because it’s “high protein and fibre rich”, keeping you “full for ages”, she says.

Pitta and hummus

A crowd-pleaser of a snack, Gibson-Moore suggests upping the healthiness of this one by using “wholemeal pitta bread with reduced-fat hummus”, which is a good source of fibre.

If you really want your teen to up their fibre intake, Gibson-Moore is also a big fan of having a slice of malt loaf, calling it “a tasty fibre provider”.

Rice cakes

A handy and relatively low-cost thing to have in your cupboard, Shilland recommends topping yours with peanut butter and avocado for a snack that is “both nutrient-rich and filling”.

Yoghurt

Gibson-Moore calls low-fat and lower-sugar yoghurts “a good source of calcium, which is needed for the maintenance of normal bones and teeth”. She continues: “Add seeds and fruit for an extra nutrient boost.”

Sandwiches

While you might want to steer clear of ultra-processed white bread, that doesn’t mean sandwiches are off the table. You could use wholemeal varieties or wraps, and Shilland suggests adding “lean protein and some colour, eg. chicken salad sandwich, wrap with falafel, hummus and salad.

“You [could] split the sandwich in two – one half in the morning, the other later in the day.”





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Health: Watching too much TV? What is it doing to your brain and body?



We all love a boxset binge, but could hours of TV time be harming our health? Imy Brighty-Potts asks experts what they think.

From bingeing Netflix before bed, to eating dinner in front of the telly and setting up camp on the sofa for a weekend movie marathon, we all love a good screen sesh. But could our viewing habits be harming our health?

Streaming services have soared in popularity in recent years, and around a fifth of UK homes now subscribe to all three of the most popular platforms – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ – costing around £300 per year, according to UK broadcast regulator Ofcom. Over-65s still favour broadcast TV over streaming, spending around a third of their waking day (almost six hours) in front of the box.

Of course, this isn’t all bad news. Losing yourself in a good series or film can be a great form of escapism, a means of combatting loneliness and for many, an affordable way to keep the family entertained.

But, with hours in front of the TV becoming the norm, it is worth considering whether our viewing habits could be harming us? We asked some experts what binge-watching too much TV might be doing to our bodies and minds…

Your brain

“There is limited evidence which suggests binge-watching TV has a negative impact on our brain health,” says Dr Bal Athwal, consultant neurologist at The Wellington Hospital (part of HCA UK). “However, there have been preliminary studies which suggests it can shrink the amount of grey matter you have as we age,” Athwal adds – a process which is associated with “dementia and other degenerative brain diseases – due to it being a non-stimulating sedentary behaviour.”

Your mind

Phil Sharples, a therapist at online therapy service livelife (livelife.co.uk), says: “When looking at the impact watching too much TV has on our mental health, there is research which has uncovered a correlation between binge-watching, depression, emptiness and low mood. It’s also suggested that those who suffer from depression or anxiety may be more likely to find themselves binge-watching, having a knock-on effect on their physical health too.

“Binge-watching can also disturb your sleep, and there is evidence that suggests sleep deprivation can contribute to the onset and worsening of mental health problems – such as anxiety and depression.

“It is also important to consider the types of programmes you are binge-watching, as the rise of reality TV shows is having an effect on the mental health of many young people – particularly when it comes to body image,” Sharples adds. “Recent research from livelife found almost a quarter of Gen Z and millennials consider body image as one of the main pressures on their mental health.

“Binge-watching TV could also lead to isolation, and the more we isolate ourselves in the home, the more difficult we may find it to leave the house, increasing our anxiety and our ability to achieve a balanced lifestyle.”

Your eyes

They might not turn square (like our parents warned), but staring at a screen all day certainly can affect your eyes. “Binge-watching TV can lead to eye strain, and symptoms of this include difficulty concentrating, headache, blurred or double vision and burning or itching eyes,” says private GP and mental health coach, Dr Hana Patel (drhanapatel.com).

Dry eye syndrome is also associated with too much screen time – so having regular breaks is important. If symptoms persist, get things checked by an optician. Treating these things early can prevent them getting worse.

Your body

According to Dr Sarah Davies, consultant in musculoskeletal, sport and exercise medicine at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health, too much TV might be seriously harming our muscles and cardiovascular health.

“When you slouch on the sofa, there is initially a sudden increase in lengthening of the soft tissues, followed by a slower but continued increase in length of the fibres as you sit in that slouched position for a long time. Simply put, our soft tissues continue to lengthen when stretched out on the sofa, even when you’re lying still,” Davies explains. “When you finally get up from the couch, the soft tissue collagen fibres take time to recover their original length, which is why you may feel stiff for a few seconds or minutes as you get going.

“When we sit still for long periods of time, blood can pool in the veins and slow the return of blood to the heart via the smaller vessels,” she adds. “This can divert blood away from important bodily functions, reducing the efficiency and effectiveness of the working body whilst we’re engrossed in a boxset.”

Your gut

Sitting in front of the TV for hours on end, often means snacking for hours on end too – without much movement in the mix.

“Mindless bingeing on food, whilst mindlessly bingeing on Netflix and other streaming services creates no end of problems for our gut health,” says Dr Lisa Das, consultant gastroenterologist at HCA at the Shard. “Sitting down causes your gut to slow down digestion, which in turn may lead to symptoms such as bloating, reflux and constipation.

“The main concern with distracted eating is not experiencing the pleasures of a meal,” she adds. “We don’t taste the food in the same way, acknowledge when we are full, and there’s no social interaction which is so necessary to our gut-brain signals.”





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NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: Scots parents are starving themselves to feed their children



Mothers surviving on leftovers, parents losing so much weight their jeans can no longer stay up, children in filthy clothes, parents so shamed they consider suicide. Poverty campaigners reveal the full horror of what’s happening to Scotland’s poorest families and say while the SNP Government far exceeds Westminster when it comes to protecting the vulnerable, so much more must be done. Exclusive by Neil Mackay

“I JUST eat my little one’s leftovers,” one Scottish mother said. Another mother told how she’d lost so much weight – because she was starving herself to ensure her children ate – that she needed to buy new clothes to fit her, but couldn’t afford them. She couldn’t even afford a belt, so had to “tie a bobble” from her hair around the waistband of her jeans to stop them falling down.

The catalogue of misery, degradation and despair just keeps going – on and on and on. Parents even talk of contemplating suicide because they no can longer afford to feed or clothe their children.

“I can only afford to feed my two kids most days,” another Scottish mother says. “I live off Cuppa soups and tell them I’m on a diet to explain why I’m not eating.” She can’t even afford the very basics needed for a dignified life: washing power, washing up liquid and toothpaste. These items are now luxuries. Another parent added: “If my son leaves anything on his plate then I’ll eat that. If not, I just eat toast most days.”

The charity, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) – which campaigns for some of the poorest in society – handed the Herald on Sunday devastating research into the extent of child poverty in our country as winter approaches amid the worst financial crisis in living memory. The full report, entitled ‘Living without a Lifeline’, is released to the public later this week.

Today, one in four Scottish children live in poverty – many are in single parent families. OPFS spoke to 260 single parents across Scotland, uncovering just how dire circumstances have got. Significantly, most single parents are in work – and many single parent families have either a parent or child who’s disabled.

One in five single parents say they can no longer afford clothes. Children are going to school in dirty uniforms. Food and energy costs are crippling. Debt is spiralling. Luxuries like cinema trips are simply beyond financial reach.

The sense of shame is overwhelming. “I feel I’m failing my children because I should be able to afford the very basics at least for them, and I can’t even do that,” one mother said. Another said: “My two children have no clothes that fit, everything is too small. I must go without meals most days, living off what the kids leave.” Her children “share a bath”, but she just gets “washed down most days”.

Even last winter, before the current crisis, parent were keeping their central heating off, using blankets and water bottles to stay warm. Some families can no longer afford a TV. As one parent said, many now “depend on food banks and handouts from family and friends”.

Rents are crippling. Using a car to get to work is financially impossible. One parent said they couldn’t even afford the bus. They “walk six to ten miles a day” to the cheapest supermarket.

Childcare costs drain what little income remains after bills for working parents. School uniforms are out of reach, even with grants. Children are becoming ill-kempt and so suffer bullying. Families can’t afford internet connections so children are unable to do their homework as “it’s all online now”.

Many single parents are in low paid, precarious work – often with unsociable hours – meaning transport and childcare become hurdles to simply keeping a job. School holidays make life even more financially difficult. One woman in full-time employment said: “The choices I make daily are getting harder.” There’s weeks, she said, where “we rely on food donations and surplus food at reduced prices”. Parents faced with raising children on benefits are filled “with dread”.

One mother added: “I’m falling apart and terrified of losing my job.” Another said: “You feel worthless when you struggle to provide for your children.” And a third made clear just how dark their life had become: “I don’t have enough to live on at all. I’m suicidal. I feel my life is not worth living anymore.”

‘THIS IS DEVASTATING – SOMETHING HAS GONE BADLY WRONG’

MARION Davis is OPFS director of strategy and policy. Her staff are delivering food parcels and financial support to Scotland’s poorest families at this time of crisis but it’s simply a sticking plaster for a near fatal wound. “The situation is desperate,” she says. Families have run out of “life lines”. Staff “are struggling to find anything further to do to help. It’s stark. Many are at crisis point”. The testimony of families is “devastating”, Davis says. “Something’s gone badly wrong.”

Ask Davis what’s to blame and she says: “It’s obviously Westminster policies.” Low pay and a brutalising social security system, which doesn’t provide enough to survive, are chief among the drivers of poverty. Westminster’s ‘two-child limit’, which restricts benefits to two children, and the benefits cap, which suppresses state support, are the two most damaging policies.

Davis says one mother was so crushed by poverty she spoke of “ending things”. The woman then asked: “Who’s going to look after my children?”

Davis warns a ‘debt crisis’ is fast approaching. Given the climate of derision whipped up against poor families – the ‘Benefits Street’ narrative – Davis is quick to point out that most single parents are employed, but in low-paying work. Those not in work are often disabled or carers.

When it comes to affordable childcare which will help more parents into work, “we’re far behind Europe”, she says.

The biggest problem, though, is our society’s “massive disparities in wealth – inequality”. Like many campaigners, Davis praises the Scottish government for the steps it’s taken to alleviate child poverty – particularly the Scottish Child Payment for vulnerable families, something which parents in the rest of Britain don’t receive. Currently it’s set at £20 a week for children under six but will rise to £25 a week for all children under-16, if they’re eligible. However, as a society “we need to look further at how wealth is distributed”. That mean’s progressive taxation with the wealthy paying more.

“We need a standard that’s sufficient for human dignity and decency,” she says, “so people can participate in society.” Rather than focusing on the effects of poverty, we should tackle the causes. “We need to look at how we prevent poverty,” Davis adds.

OPFS is opening its family centres for longer now so families “can be warm for a while” as winter approaches. Its Glasgow centre is appealing for hot water bottles and fleeces. Food banks, Davis notes, are increasingly asked for groceries which don’t require cooking so families don’t run up energy bills. “We’re moving into a period of crisis where this depth of poverty hasn’t ever been experienced.”

As there’s limits on how many times families can attend food banks, food pantries are springing up. Food pantries charge small fees – a pound or two – for access to cheap groceries. One woman, however, contacted OPFS to say she “didn’t even have the pound to join”. Davis says OPFS staff are “traumatised” from hearing the testimony of families pushed to the brink.

The bottom line for Davis is that Westminster simply has to get more money to the most desperate families – right away. “Families just don’t have enough money – that’s what this is about.” The support package from the new UK government isn’t targeted correctly and does too little. The UK government needs to shoulder the blame for much of the devastation due to the “impact of austerity”. The poor have been “stigmatised”. Davis noted how government assistance has been described as “handouts”.

“Families must be treated with dignity and respect,” she added. The UK government, Davis says, “see the drivers of poverty as alcohol abuse and drugs. We don’t agree with that.” Poverty is “systemic”, she says – it’s created by political decisions.

While the Scottish government has helped, it should use the powers it does have to do more – not just around income tax, but council tax too. Council tax is “unfair on low income families. They pay much higher proportions of their income than people in higher valued properties”.

The eligibility criteria for free schools meals and school clothing grants needs to be changed as it excludes too many low income families. School meals should be “universal” for all pupils in primary and secondary. “There’s a lot of debt in relation to school meals,” Davis explains. Parents are starting to owe schools “huge amounts” they can’t afford.

The Scottish government’s decision to cut £53m from employability schemes after announcing its package of measures to help poor families, including Child Payment increases, disappointed campaigners, as many one parent families feature women needing training to get better jobs to escape poverty. Many lone parents work in social care or hospitality, and are in their 30s, often returning to work, sometimes following relationship break ups. Carers are regularly just forgotten.

It’s “stark”, Davis says, to see the money spent on the Queen’s funeral “in contrast to what you’ll read in our survey.”

‘THE UK GOVERNMENT MUST EMULATE SCOTLAND’

JOHN Dickie heads the Child Poverty Action Group, Scotland’s main organisation campaigning for struggling families. While there’s much more the Scottish government could do to help the poorest in society, the contrast with Westminster is startling. “There’s a real disparity”, Dickie says, between what Edinburgh and London are doing. “That’s a real concern.”

He adds: “We need every level of government working together to end the scandal of child poverty in a rich country. Whilst the Scottish government can and must do more, it’s committed itself to statutory targets to reduce child poverty, produced a delivery plan that sets out the right areas where action is needed, and is investing significantly in the Scottish Child Payment as well as committing itself to more funded childcare and better employment support for parents. This will significantly reduce the numbers of children living in poverty in Scotland.”

However, much more work is needed for the Scottish government to meet its target of reducing the number of children in poverty to less than 18%. Currently one in four children live in poverty.

“We need the UK government to start taking a similar approach,” Dickie says. That means Westminster “investing in social security and removing barriers to work. As a priority it needs to scrap poverty-producing policies like the two child limit and the benefit cap within the UK social security system. The two child limit alone is pushing around 18,000 children into poverty in Scotland. There’s no UK strategy for reducing child poverty. That’s a black hole the new Prime Minister must fill.”

He added: “In short, the approach the Scottish government is taking needs to be replicated across the UK. Here in Scotland it needs to be strengthened and adequately resourced to ensure success.”

Low-income families have been “left brutally exposed” to the current crisis due to austerity, social security cuts and low pay. “At the same time, work has become increasingly precarious. It’s hard to imagine how it could be any more challenging. Increasingly, families who were maybe getting by before are tipping over the edge.”

Even when support workers give all the help they can to low income families – “whether in or out of work” – Dickie says: “There’s still not enough to make ends meet and enable parents to give children a decent start in life.”

Clearly, children are under stress too as “they pick up on when parents are struggling”. Some children “don’t tell parents about school trips and miss out rather than put additional burdens onto their parents. So children are protecting their parents from the impact of not having enough money, and parents are going to extraordinary lengths to protect their children – like going without food. All the joy and pleasure of family life is taken away. The impact is profound.”

Children are missing school because they haven’t clean clothes. Dickie, who’s campaigned to end child poverty for 18 years, says what’s happening now is “heartbreaking”.

If children don’t have clean clothes to attend class, then school “starts to feel less and less a place where you fit in”. Children’s education suffers, they might attend school less, and that has long term effects for society, creating more poverty in the future. This causes “extraordinary damage” – meaning children raised in poverty “are at greater risk of being the poor parents of the future”.

However, “there’s no reason why this generation of children, even if their parents are struggling on low incomes, should be condemned to a life of poverty themselves”. Politicians can break the cycle.

“A quarter of Scottish children are in poverty. Over two-thirds of those children are in families where an adult is working. This is predominantly a problem where parents are working.” If we managed to crack problems like inequality for disabled people and low-pay for women – who make up the vast bulk of one parent families – “we’d go a long way to cracking child poverty”. Fixing childcare is key. “We don’t have the infrastructure that exists in other countries.”

Dickie says Scotland is “lucky” the Edinburgh government at least recognises that the causes of child poverty are “structural” – down to low pay and low social security benefits. “That’s what creates child poverty.” The popular view that drugs and alcohol lie behind poverty “is easier” to accept than addressing the real causes. Addiction can blight any family regardless of income, he says, but if you’re poor nothing cushions the damage.

The fact that so many families in poverty are in work “exposes the myth” that poverty is down to people choosing not to work. Around £39 billion has been taken from social security since the early 2010s – it must be restored, Dickie says. A real living wage – £9.90 hourly – has to be put in place so people have “a socially acceptable standard of living”.

While policies such as Scotland’s Child Payment – which isn’t available in the rest of Britain – “are a big step on the road to tackling child poverty”, much more needs done in Scotland. The government says it will roll out free school meals to all P6 and P7s, however “that commitment was in last year’s programme for government and never happened”.

For Dickie, like nearly all poverty campaigners, “progressive taxation must be on the table. The Scottish government needs to look at the range of tax powers it does have and how they can be used to ensure it has resources to fund what’s needed to prevent child poverty”. There’s plenty of wealth in Scotland, he notes. “There’s no need to leave anyone behind.” If we want to protect people “we need to pay for that collectively, that requires the use of tax powers and being more ambitious in how we use those tax powers”.

Even if the Scottish government reaches its pre-crisis target of reducing child poverty to 18% by 2024 “that’s still one in five children left in poverty. That’s just not good enough”.

Nevertheless, “Scotland’s government is pretty serious about this. There’s a child poverty action plan. That’s quite a different situation than at UK level. What jars at UK level is we don’t even have a child poverty strategy – there’s no serious debate about how to tackle child poverty.”

As for the future, “it’s hard to be optimistic when so many families are struggling to get by. The absolute priority at a UK and Scottish level needs to be making sure ordinary families get through the coming months. We’re clearly failing as a society if we’re leaving so many children behind. How can that possibly be right? We’ve allowed a situation to come about where food banks are part of the landscape. Most people know this is morally wrong.

“There’s reasons why so many of our children are being left in families with no resources – and that’s conscious political choices that we’ve either supported or allowed to happen. Collectively as a society, we need to be pressing politicians to do the things we know are right.”

With so many families depending on charity to eat, “it feels like we’re going backwards. Something’s gone horribly wrong. It’s not hopeless. Nothing is inevitable – but we’re not only seeing increasing numbers of children in poverty, but increasing numbers of children in deep poverty. Terrifying is the word to use, particularly this winter.”





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Health: Five myths about Rheumatoid Arthritis



It isn’t just aching joints, and it can affect people of any age. Lisa Salmon busts some common myths about rheumatoid arthritis.

It’s easy to dismiss rheumatoid arthritis as an almost-inevitable part of ageing. But the fact is, rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, isn’t connected to ageing, and is an often very misunderstood condition.

That’s the message from the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society this week (NRAS; nras.org.uk), Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week, to highlight the many myths surrounding the disease, which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t just affect the joints.

As the NRAS points out, RA is a systemic condition which can affect the body all over. Although joint pain is the most common symptom, it can also affect organs – including the eyes – as well as the nerves, blood vessels and muscles and cause widespread problems such as fatigue and flu-like symptoms. Other issues can also develop due to RA – like vasculitis, which occurs when blood vessels become swollen.

“This year, RA Awareness Week is looking to dispel the myths that surround rheumatoid arthritis, a hidden condition that is quite misunderstood,” says Stuart Munday, director of marketing at the NRAS.

“The RA community, their families and carers and healthcare professionals are only too aware of the misconceptions people have about inflammatory arthritis, which is why we’ve created the #RAFactOrFiction quiz to share with others and spread awareness.”

So what are some of those myths? Here are five things about rheumatoid arthritis everyone needs to stop believing…

1. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by wear and tear on the joints

Another common type of arthritis – osteoarthritis – is caused by joint wear and tear and is associated with ageing. But RA is different and occurs when the immune system attacks the lining of the joints, causing pain, swelling and stiffness.

“RA is an autoimmune condition that’s a result of the immune system responding inappropriately,” explains Munday. “The immune system doesn’t know when to stop doing its job so mistakenly attacks the synovial membrane around the joints, causing pain and swelling, and can also affect other organs.”

2. Only older people get rheumatoid arthritis

Although it’s got a different name, children can get a form of inflammatory arthritis similar to rheumatoid arthritis, known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). During adulthood, RA can potentially affect people of all ages.

As Munday says: “The most common age for people to develop RA is between 40 and 60, or a bit older for men. People can get it at any age and there are other forms of inflammatory arthritis, but RA is the most common.”

3. Rheumatoid arthritis is more common in men

This isn’t true. In fact, it’s believed RA impacts roughly two to three times more women than men, says Munday.

4. Only humans get rheumatoid arthritis

Pets like cats and dogs can get a form of arthritis called immune-mediated polyarthritis (IMPA). Munday says: “Studies have shown that certain animals can be affected by immune-mediated polyarthritis (IMPA). RA is a form of IMPA in people.”

5. Smoking doesn’t affect it

Smoking can damage health in many different ways, and one of them is by increasing the risk of RA. “Smoking can potentially double the chances of developing RA,” stresses Munday. “Once diagnosed, if someone continues to smoke, it can reduce the effectiveness of medication by up to 50%, leading to increased joint pain and inflammation.”





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NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: Scots parents are starving themselves to feed their children … a disturbing portrait of Dickensian poverty on our doorstep



Mothers surviving on leftovers, parents losing so much weight their jeans can no longer stay up, children in filthy clothes, parents so shamed they consider suicide. Poverty campaigners reveal the full horror of what’s happening to Scotland’s poorest families and say while the SNP Government far exceeds Westminster when it comes to protecting the vulnerable, so much more must be done. Exclusive by Neil Mackay

“I JUST eat my little one’s leftovers,” one Scottish mother said. Another mother told how she’d lost so much weight – because she was starving herself to ensure her children ate – that she needed to buy new clothes to fit her, but couldn’t afford them. She couldn’t even afford a belt, so had to “tie a bobble” from her hair around the waistband of her jeans to stop them falling down.

The catalogue of misery, degradation and despair just keeps going – on and on and on. Parents even talk of contemplating suicide because they no can longer afford to feed or clothe their children.

“I can only afford to feed my two kids most days,” another Scottish mother says. “I live off Cuppa soups and tell them I’m on a diet to explain why I’m not eating.” She can’t even afford the very basics needed for a dignified life: washing power, washing up liquid and toothpaste. These items are now luxuries. Another parent added: “If my son leaves anything on his plate then I’ll eat that. If not, I just eat toast most days.”

The charity, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) – which campaigns for some of the poorest in society – handed the Herald on Sunday devastating research into the extent of child poverty in our country as winter approaches amid the worst financial crisis in living memory. The full report, entitled ‘Living without a Lifeline’, is released to the public later this week.

Today, one in four Scottish children live in poverty – many are in single parent families. OPFS spoke to 260 single parents across Scotland, uncovering just how dire circumstances have got. Significantly, most single parents are in work – and many single parent families have either a parent or child who’s disabled.

One in five single parents say they can no longer afford clothes. Children are going to school in dirty uniforms. Food and energy costs are crippling. Debt is spiralling. Luxuries like cinema trips are simply beyond financial reach.

The sense of shame is overwhelming. “I feel I’m failing my children because I should be able to afford the very basics at least for them, and I can’t even do that,” one mother said. Another said: “My two children have no clothes that fit, everything is too small. I must go without meals most days, living off what the kids leave.” Her children “share a bath”, but she just gets “washed down most days”.

Even last winter, before the current crisis, parent were keeping their central heating off, using blankets and water bottles to stay warm. Some families can no longer afford a TV. As one parent said, many now “depend on food banks and handouts from family and friends”.

Rents are crippling. Using a car to get to work is financially impossible. One parent said they couldn’t even afford the bus. They “walk six to ten miles a day” to the cheapest supermarket.

Childcare costs drain what little income remains after bills for working parents. School uniforms are out of reach, even with grants. Children are becoming ill-kempt and so suffer bullying. Families can’t afford internet connections so children are unable to do their homework as “it’s all online now”.

Many single parents are in low paid, precarious work – often with unsociable hours – meaning transport and childcare become hurdles to simply keeping a job. School holidays make life even more financially difficult. One woman in full-time employment said: “The choices I make daily are getting harder.” There’s weeks, she said, where “we rely on food donations and surplus food at reduced prices”. Parents faced with raising children on benefits are filled “with dread”.

One mother added: “I’m falling apart and terrified of losing my job.” Another said: “You feel worthless when you struggle to provide for your children.” And a third made clear just how dark their life had become: “I don’t have enough to live on at all. I’m suicidal. I feel my life is not worth living anymore.”

‘THIS IS DEVASTATING – SOMETHING HAS GONE BADLY WRONG’

MARION Davis is OPFS director of strategy and policy. Her staff are delivering food parcels and financial support to Scotland’s poorest families at this time of crisis but it’s simply a sticking plaster for a near fatal wound. “The situation is desperate,” she says. Families have run out of “life lines”. Staff “are struggling to find anything further to do to help. It’s stark. Many are at crisis point”. The testimony of families is “devastating”, Davis says. “Something’s gone badly wrong.”

Ask Davis what’s to blame and she says: “It’s obviously Westminster policies.” Low pay and a brutalising social security system, which doesn’t provide enough to survive, are chief among the drivers of poverty. Westminster’s ‘two-child limit’, which restricts benefits to two children, and the benefits cap, which suppresses state support, are the two most damaging policies.

Davis says one mother was so crushed by poverty she spoke of “ending things”. The woman then asked: “Who’s going to look after my children?”

Davis warns a ‘debt crisis’ is fast approaching. Given the climate of derision whipped up against poor families – the ‘Benefits Street’ narrative – Davis is quick to point out that most single parents are employed, but in low-paying work. Those not in work are often disabled or carers.

When it comes to affordable childcare which will help more parents into work, “we’re far behind Europe”, she says.

The biggest problem, though, is our society’s “massive disparities in wealth – inequality”. Like many campaigners, Davis praises the Scottish government for the steps it’s taken to alleviate child poverty – particularly the Scottish Child Payment for vulnerable families, something which parents in the rest of Britain don’t receive. Currently it’s set at £20 a week for children under six but will rise to £25 a week for all children under-16, if they’re eligible. However, as a society “we need to look further at how wealth is distributed”. That mean’s progressive taxation with the wealthy paying more.

“We need a standard that’s sufficient for human dignity and decency,” she says, “so people can participate in society.” Rather than focusing on the effects of poverty, we should tackle the causes. “We need to look at how we prevent poverty,” Davis adds.

OPFS is opening its family centres for longer now so families “can be warm for a while” as winter approaches. Its Glasgow centre is appealing for hot water bottles and fleeces. Food banks, Davis notes, are increasingly asked for groceries which don’t require cooking so families don’t run up energy bills. “We’re moving into a period of crisis where this depth of poverty hasn’t ever been experienced.”

As there’s limits on how many times families can attend food banks, food pantries are springing up. Food pantries charge small fees – a pound or two – for access to cheap groceries. One woman, however, contacted OPFS to say she “didn’t even have the pound to join”. Davis says OPFS staff are “traumatised” from hearing the testimony of families pushed to the brink.

The bottom line for Davis is that Westminster simply has to get more money to the most desperate families – right away. “Families just don’t have enough money – that’s what this is about.” The support package from the new UK government isn’t targeted correctly and does too little. The UK government needs to shoulder the blame for much of the devastation due to the “impact of austerity”. The poor have been “stigmatised”. Davis noted how government assistance has been described as “handouts”.

“Families must be treated with dignity and respect,” she added. The UK government, Davis says, “see the drivers of poverty as alcohol abuse and drugs. We don’t agree with that.” Poverty is “systemic”, she says – it’s created by political decisions.

While the Scottish government has helped, it should use the powers it does have to do more – not just around income tax, but council tax too. Council tax is “unfair on low income families. They pay much higher proportions of their income than people in higher valued properties”.

The eligibility criteria for free schools meals and school clothing grants needs to be changed as it excludes too many low income families. School meals should be “universal” for all pupils in primary and secondary. “There’s a lot of debt in relation to school meals,” Davis explains. Parents are starting to owe schools “huge amounts” they can’t afford.

The Scottish government’s decision to cut £53m from employability schemes after announcing its package of measures to help poor families, including Child Payment increases, disappointed campaigners, as many one parent families feature women needing training to get better jobs to escape poverty. Many lone parents work in social care or hospitality, and are in their 30s, often returning to work, sometimes following relationship break ups. Carers are regularly just forgotten.

It’s “stark”, Davis says, to see the money spent on the Queen’s funeral “in contrast to what you’ll read in our survey.”

‘THE UK GOVERNMENT MUST EMULATE SCOTLAND’

JOHN Dickie heads the Child Poverty Action Group, Scotland’s main organisation campaigning for struggling families. While there’s much more the Scottish government could do to help the poorest in society, the contrast with Westminster is startling. “There’s a real disparity”, Dickie says, between what Edinburgh and London are doing. “That’s a real concern.”

He adds: “We need every level of government working together to end the scandal of child poverty in a rich country. Whilst the Scottish government can and must do more, it’s committed itself to statutory targets to reduce child poverty, produced a delivery plan that sets out the right areas where action is needed, and is investing significantly in the Scottish Child Payment as well as committing itself to more funded childcare and better employment support for parents. This will significantly reduce the numbers of children living in poverty in Scotland.”

However, much more work is needed for the Scottish government to meet its target of reducing the number of children in poverty to less than 18%. Currently one in four children live in poverty.

“We need the UK government to start taking a similar approach,” Dickie says. That means Westminster “investing in social security and removing barriers to work. As a priority it needs to scrap poverty-producing policies like the two child limit and the benefit cap within the UK social security system. The two child limit alone is pushing around 18,000 children into poverty in Scotland. There’s no UK strategy for reducing child poverty. That’s a black hole the new Prime Minister must fill.”

He added: “In short, the approach the Scottish government is taking needs to be replicated across the UK. Here in Scotland it needs to be strengthened and adequately resourced to ensure success.”

Low-income families have been “left brutally exposed” to the current crisis due to austerity, social security cuts and low pay. “At the same time, work has become increasingly precarious. It’s hard to imagine how it could be any more challenging. Increasingly, families who were maybe getting by before are tipping over the edge.”

Even when support workers give all the help they can to low income families – “whether in or out of work” – Dickie says: “There’s still not enough to make ends meet and enable parents to give children a decent start in life.”

Clearly, children are under stress too as “they pick up on when parents are struggling”. Some children “don’t tell parents about school trips and miss out rather than put additional burdens onto their parents. So children are protecting their parents from the impact of not having enough money, and parents are going to extraordinary lengths to protect their children – like going without food. All the joy and pleasure of family life is taken away. The impact is profound.”

Children are missing school because they haven’t clean clothes. Dickie, who’s campaigned to end child poverty for 18 years, says what’s happening now is “heartbreaking”.

If children don’t have clean clothes to attend class, then school “starts to feel less and less a place where you fit in”. Children’s education suffers, they might attend school less, and that has long term effects for society, creating more poverty in the future. This causes “extraordinary damage” – meaning children raised in poverty “are at greater risk of being the poor parents of the future”.

However, “there’s no reason why this generation of children, even if their parents are struggling on low incomes, should be condemned to a life of poverty themselves”. Politicians can break the cycle.

“A quarter of Scottish children are in poverty. Over two-thirds of those children are in families where an adult is working. This is predominantly a problem where parents are working.” If we managed to crack problems like inequality for disabled people and low-pay for women – who make up the vast bulk of one parent families – “we’d go a long way to cracking child poverty”. Fixing childcare is key. “We don’t have the infrastructure that exists in other countries.”

Dickie says Scotland is “lucky” the Edinburgh government at least recognises that the causes of child poverty are “structural” – down to low pay and low social security benefits. “That’s what creates child poverty.” The popular view that drugs and alcohol lie behind poverty “is easier” to accept than addressing the real causes. Addiction can blight any family regardless of income, he says, but if you’re poor nothing cushions the damage.

The fact that so many families in poverty are in work “exposes the myth” that poverty is down to people choosing not to work. Around £39 billion has been taken from social security since the early 2010s – it must be restored, Dickie says. A real living wage – £9.90 hourly – has to be put in place so people have “a socially acceptable standard of living”.

While policies such as Scotland’s Child Payment – which isn’t available in the rest of Britain – “are a big step on the road to tackling child poverty”, much more needs done in Scotland. The government says it will roll out free school meals to all P6 and P7s, however “that commitment was in last year’s programme for government and never happened”.

For Dickie, like nearly all poverty campaigners, “progressive taxation must be on the table. The Scottish government needs to look at the range of tax powers it does have and how they can be used to ensure it has resources to fund what’s needed to prevent child poverty”. There’s plenty of wealth in Scotland, he notes. “There’s no need to leave anyone behind.” If we want to protect people “we need to pay for that collectively, that requires the use of tax powers and being more ambitious in how we use those tax powers”.

Even if the Scottish government reaches its pre-crisis target of reducing child poverty to 18% by 2024 “that’s still one in five children left in poverty. That’s just not good enough”.

Nevertheless, “Scotland’s government is pretty serious about this. There’s a child poverty action plan. That’s quite a different situation than at UK level. What jars at UK level is we don’t even have a child poverty strategy – there’s no serious debate about how to tackle child poverty.”

As for the future, “it’s hard to be optimistic when so many families are struggling to get by. The absolute priority at a UK and Scottish level needs to be making sure ordinary families get through the coming months. We’re clearly failing as a society if we’re leaving so many children behind. How can that possibly be right? We’ve allowed a situation to come about where food banks are part of the landscape. Most people know this is morally wrong.

“There’s reasons why so many of our children are being left in families with no resources – and that’s conscious political choices that we’ve either supported or allowed to happen. Collectively as a society, we need to be pressing politicians to do the things we know are right.”

With so many families depending on charity to eat, “it feels like we’re going backwards. Something’s gone horribly wrong. It’s not hopeless. Nothing is inevitable – but we’re not only seeing increasing numbers of children in poverty, but increasing numbers of children in deep poverty. Terrifying is the word to use, particularly this winter.”





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Celebrity foot reader Jane Sheehan brings course to Glasgow


IT might be said that the eyes are the windows to the soul.

But if you’re celebrity foot reader Jane Sheehan, the clues to a person’s emotional wellbeing and personality traits lie at the opposite end of the body: in the shapes of the toes and the lines of the soles.

Sheehan, a bestselling author who travels the world “reading” feet and running training courses in the art of solestry, believes you can tell everything from how rebellious, manipulative or insecure someone is from the length of their toes to the gaps between them.

She says she has even detected signs of depression from “purply-black toe pads” which signal that someone is “walking more slumped, so cutting off the blood supply to their toes”.

Sceptics may scoff, but Sheehan’s skills are so in demand she once found herself giving ad hoc lessons on a flight between the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Kauai.

“That’s wackiest place I’ve ever done a foot reading,” said Sheehan, whose two-day workshop in Glasgow on Wednesday and Thursday this week is almost sold out.

“Someone I’d met on the island of Maui saw me on the plane and said ‘oh, I couldn’t get to you the other day – can you read my feet now?’”

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Sheehan, who graduated with a degree in marketing and engineering, is more surprised than anyone by her career path.

She was working at an avionics engineering firm in the late 1990s – fully expecting to become an engineer – when a friend’s request of reflexology treatment for her birthday unexpectedly piqued her interest.

“The minute they started working on her feet, they were telling her all about her health and I’m thinking ‘that’s mad – how do they know that?’,”said Sheehan, who lives near the seaside town of Southport in Merseyside.

“Then, when it was my go, every time they touched my big toe I had tears streaming down my face. I had no control over it and it repeated on the other foot.

“When I left there I felt like I was in slow motion – I just had to know more.”

Reflexology is an alternative medical practice involving the application of pressure to specific points on the feet on the premise that this releases “blockages” in other areas of the body which are causing pain or illness.

Critics argue that there is no scientific evidence to back up the theory, but Sheehan said she was struck by the “huge emotional reactions” of patients when she practised on them as case studies during her own reflexology training.

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It led her to explore the theories of foot reading pioneer Imre Somogyi.

Sheehan said: “Imre had interviewed 5000 people about their toe shapes and personality, allocating each of the toes one of the ayurvedic five elements with the theory that if one of those elements is out of balance then it has a corresponding personality effect.

“I studied his toe alphabet and then I started using it on anyone and everyone who would let me and it got to the stage where I’d go to a party and I’d be given a foot before I was given a drink.”

What had started as a “bit of fun” quickly snowballed into a full-time occupation as demand grew.

“It went from being my party trick to my profession almost overnight, because someone asked me to give a talk about it and we had a queue of people in the break asking me where they could learn more, so I took their names and addresses, wrote a course on how to do it, and I’ve been doing that for the past 22 years.”

HeraldScotland: Jane SheehanJane Sheehan

When she isn’t running workshops from California to Australia, Sheehan has found herself giving personal foot reads to the likes of television presenter Fern Britton or at the home of Spandau Ballet star Martin Kemp after he organised a foot reading party for his wife.

More seriously, she also looks for signs of melanoma in nails – a rare form of skin cancer which killed Bob Marley, but is easy to spot and treat if detected early.

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Overall, though, she believes the main draw for clients is curiosity, fun, and the chance for fresh insight into themselves.

“Who doesn’t like hearing about themselves?,” said Sheehan.

“But the other benefit is that if I say something that you know, but you’ve been avoiding.

“If I hold a mirror up to you, you can either think ‘I’m okay with that’, or maybe it’s something you want to change.”

She added: “I feel that we’re born with the feet for our life purpose – the emotions and personality for our life purpose.

“One person’s stubborn is another person’s tenacious in the face of adversity, so I believe when we’re off track our personality is problematic; when we’re on track it’s a positive.

“Our feet are our guidance manual for life, if you like.”

A two-day seminar in foot reading theory and practical workshops will be held at the Theosophical Society, Glasgow on September 21-22. Tickets cost £170





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