By Susan Horgan, Nutritional Therapist (NTOI)
What we feed our children and the examples that we set when they are young can have a lasting impact on their health.
A recent HSE survey found that 1 in 4 Irish school children are overweight or obese, with girls in fourth to sixth class the most likely to fall into this category than any other age or gender group. Research has shown that there is a link between childhood obesity and the risk of being obese as an adult. Evidence also shows rising numbers of children developing chronic conditions that were previously only seen in older adults such as Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension and high cholesterol.
But with the vast amount of information available on the internet and the impact of the marketing of processed foods as “healthy”, how are we, as parents, to decipher what we should and shouldn’t feed our children? Here’s my top tips for ensuring they’re getting all they need to thrive:
1. Switch From the White Stuff – Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy for children and teens, especially those that are physically active. They are also an excellent source of B vitamins, minerals such as magnesium and calcium, and fibre – Crucial for optimal gut health. The key is choosing the right ones – Highly refined, white, fluffy carbs offer much less in terms of health benefits. Fruit and vegetables, whole grains, such as rice, quinoa and oats, wholemeal bread and using wholemeal pasta & noodles are all much more nutritious options. Beans and lentils are an excellent source of both carbohydrates and plant-based protein.
Reducing added sugars is also really important – Think sweets, biscuits, cakes, chocolate and sugary cereals. Consistent high levels of sugar in the blood can lead to insulin resistance, which is linked to weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. Changing snack habits to include less refined, sugary items and using more natural options to sweeten baking or food (such as dates, maple syrup or honey) are great places to start.
2. Protein Power! Protein is an essential part of everyone’s diet – It is broken down into amino acids which form the building blocks to support the growth and repair of all of our tissues, organs and cells. This is especially important in children and teenagers, who are undergoing rapid growth and development stages – Body and brain. At least 2 servings of a variety of protein sources, animal or plant, should be included every day. Animal protein sources include meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. Plant protein sources include beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts and seeds
3) Fat is Not All Bad! While fat was demonised for many years, the science is now starting to show that it is not the devil it was made out to be and that certain types of fats can actually be beneficial to our health. The key to fat is balance – The typical Irish diet generally contains high levels of saturated fat (from meat, eggs and dairy) and not enough of the other types of fat (mono & polyunsaturated). By choosing lean meat and including more sources of monounsaturated (Think avocados, olives, olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (Oily fish, nuts & seeds), you provide the full spectrum of fats in the diet, each of which have their own specific benefits within the various body systems.
Fat is used as an energy source and, in young children, can be a good way to provide more calories without adding bulk to the diet. It is used as building blocks for cell membranes and our brains, which are made of over 60% fat. Cholesterol is used for hormone production. Fats are also important sources and transporters of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Portion size is important – While I don’t like to focus on calories (particularly for children), fat does provide over double the calories per gram compared to protein or carbohydrates so just be mindful of their overall intake.
4) Who Doesn’t Love Rainbows? I know my children love seeing rainbows and my son colours everything in full rainbow colours. This can be a really easy way to engage with your children on eating lots of different coloured foods. Diversity of colour in our diet is hugely important – Each different colour group provides a multitude of unique phytonutrients that are key to good health. The focus should be on having more vegetables than fruit on a daily basis – with my children, I try to aim for 1-2 pieces of fruit per day and 4-5 portions of veg (Not always 100% successfully, but I try!) Using a wall chart to track what colours they have eaten each day can be a good incentive – Kids love a bit of healthy competition and to see their achievements on paper.
5) Read The Labels – It’s easy to say “eat whole, unprocessed foods; cook your meals from scratch every day; ditch the processed food”. But the reality is that life is so busy these days and sometimes, convenience is king – Even when you’re a nutritionist! But that doesn’t mean that you have to compromise on the quality of what you eat. There are plenty of good quality packaged options available, you just have to know what to look for. My general rule of thumb when looking at packaged foods is, if it has more than about 5 or 6 ingredients and contains lots of words that I can’t pronounce then don’t buy it.
Focusing on eating less processed, more natural foods, as much as possible will help our children to develop the taste for real food and support good eating habits as they grow. On those crazy days when you need to reach for something quick and easy, choose wisely and make it as nutritious as you can (Add frozen or pre-prepared veggies, offer fruit as dessert, etc).
All of this might seem really overwhelming and unrealistic for your family. Or maybe you’re doing great in some areas and not in others. Just remember that every small change makes a difference – So take it at a pace that works for you. Children learn by example, so what we (as parents) are eating is as important as what we put on their plates.
The big picture? There’s 21 meals in every week and none of us will get them all perfect all of the time. Balance is key - Aim to have your family eat well 80-90% of the time and don’t stress about the rest. Being a parent is hard, so go easy on yourself and know that your best is good enough.
About The Author
Susan Horgan is an NTOI registered Nutritional Therapist