ARELY a week goes by without children’s diets being mentioned in the media. Health officials are calling for targets to be set to cut the calories in popular foods amid concerns children are consuming too much.
Public Health England chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone says: “We have a serious problem – one in three leave primary school either obese or overweight. If we want to tackle this we have to look at calories. There are a number of ways it can be done – we can reduce the size of the products or change the ingredients.”
NHS figures suggest obesity rates among UK children are continuing to rise. Of course, it’s a big concern, but it can be an extremely confusing issue for parents.
And as Chris Smith, senior lecturer in health and social care at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), points out, healthy eating is not just about calories. Here, he talks us through some key points... Official guidelines suggest schoolage children need 1,600-2,500 calories a day. There are more specific guidelines for certain age ranges, however, and it also depends on their body weight and activity levels. As with adults, however, if you’re generally healthy, active and mindful of having a balanced diet, you shouldn’t need to obsess about calorie-counting.
Chris notes: “Calories have become almost a catch-all measurement for the value of food, and on their own, they are not a useful guide for parents or their children. Calories are just a raw value of energy calculated following experiments in a lab, rather than inside the human body. It is far more important to focus on the nutritional value of the food we give our children.”
Ultimately, numbers and guidelines – the body mass index (BMI), for example – have their place, but they don’t tell the whole story. “Studies have demonstrated that purely using a visual assessment of a child’s weight status by a parent can lead to either over- or underfeeding,” says Chris. “This will ultimately lead to the creation of negative associations with food by the child, which can transition into adolescence. Children have a great ability to self-regulate on their own – so if they need more food, they will ask for more. A parent’s role is to facilitate choice and encourage a positive relationship with food.” If you’re concerned about your child’s weight or BMI measurement, remember you can always talk to your GP for advice.
“Try to avoid pressuring yourself or your child into eating the `ideal’ diet,” says Chris. “Children and infants develop their own preferences from an early age, and it does not matter how much a parent may like their child to eat loads of fruit and vegetables, if they don’t have a preference for this, over-pressuring can cause more harm than good.
“Simple advice would be to introduce a variety of different foods into your child’s diet. Even if they don’t like something the first time, don’t be afraid to reintroduce these again. Studies have shown it takes at least six introductions to a new food until children form a preference.
“Try to avoid bribery – this just strengthens a preference to the reward food and a stronger dislike for the food they are being bribed to eat.
“From sitting down together at mealtimes, to cooking together at weekends, remember, food can be fun and kids will respond to your signals.”