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Finding the balance when it comes to our children's diet

Healthy eating is about much more than tallying the numbers - the nutritional value of food is far more important

Helping mum: kids need 1,600 to 2,500 calories daily
Helping mum: kids need 1,600 to 2,500 calories daily

By Abi Jackson

Barely a week goes by without children's diets being mentioned in the media. Health officials are now 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.

Should parents be monitoring kids' calories?

Official guidelines suggest school-age 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."

What if your child is physically active, or very strong or tall for their age?

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 under-feeding," 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 in this is to facilitate choice and encourage a positive relationship with food overall."

So what should you do?

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.

And what should you avoid?

"Try to avoid bribery, such as offering their favourite foods as a reward for eating healthy foods they don't like.

"This just strengthens a preference to the reward food and a stronger dislike for the food they are being bribed to eat.

"If you feel you may be approaching a 'stand-off' situation with something, just move on - over-pressuring can create a negative association with food.

"Foods to be wary of are those high in sugar and low in nutritional value. These include juice and fizzy drinks, certain cereals and some sweets.

"A sensible rule of thumb is to opt more for foods that don't necessarily come with a label on them, such as fresh fruit and veg."

Encourage kids to enjoy food

From sitting down together at mealtimes, to cooking together at weekends (kids love helping out), remember, food can be fun and kids will respond to your signals.

"It's important to promote a positive attitude towards food with children by involving them in the selection and preparation, as well as the consumption of it," says Chris.

"Role-modelling positive relationships with the right foods is a strong predicator of a child's development with regards to healthy eating habits."

Plus, diet is just part of the picture. Being active, getting plenty of time outdoors, exploring and having fun, all play an important part, too.

Belfast Telegraph


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