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Tips to tackling childhood obesity being given to parents on (smaller) plate

A campaign by the healthy eating body Safefood says reduced portions are key in helping children keep their weight in check. Two Northern Ireland mums and their children tell Stephanie Bell how awareness has greatly helped them watch what they eat.

In the latest move to try and curb the growing problem of childhood obesity in Northern Ireland, parents are being urged to cut down on portion sizes. The advice comes as research reveals that a quarter of children starting primary school this week will be overweight or obese - about eight children in a class.

Healthy eating agency Safefood, which is organising the three-year campaign to tackle the issue, says portion size is a key issue in preventing children becoming overweight and are urging parents to serve child-sized portions.

In fact something as simple as swapping a large dinner plate for a smaller one can have a major impact on controlling how much your child eats - and how much weight they gain.

In what is the final phase of the three-year campaign the message for parents is that how much children eat is as important as what they eat. And recent studies have demonstrated that children aged over two eat up to 40% more food when bigger portion sizes were made available.

The move aims to give parents practical solutions to tackle the everyday habits associated with excess weight in childhood.

Results for year one show that it has had a huge impact with many parents making positive and practical changes to their children's eating as well as their physical activity.

The latest findings show a significant increase in the daily consumption of water by children at meal times, up 15%, with the amount of fizzy drinks consumed down by 5%.

Now, parents are serving more age-appropriate portion sizes to children - a rise of 7% - and there has been a 16% increase in the amount of children getting one hour of physical activity per day.

Awareness is also up among parents that excess weight in children is linked to poorer health in later life - a hike of 16%. And the campaign has encouraged parents to open up about the issue of their child's weight if they needed to, a rise of 21%.

The campaign has focused on practical solutions but in small, achievable steps with six core actions for parents.

These included understanding portion sizes for children, how to manage treat foods like sweets, crisps and chocolate, being more physically active, reducing screen-time, replacing sugary drinks and encouraging more sleep.

The latest move in the campaign to persuade parents to cut down on portion sizes has been launched this month.

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of Human Health and Nutrition at Safefood, says: "It's well established that for adults, we eat more food and consume more calories when we're given bigger portions and we now recognise that this goes for children as well.

"There has also been a significant increase in food portion sizes in the past 20 years. This all contributes to more children nowadays carrying excess weight.

"What's also interesting is that young children up to the age of two have good appetite control and only eat what they need, but older children lose this ability to know when they're full."

Research showing that food portion sizes have significantly increased over the past 20 years also indicates that this has occurred particularly among baked foods like scones, croissants and Danishes, as well as takeaway foods.

Some takeaway food portion sizes are now 180% bigger compared to the late nineties.

Jennifer McBratney, health and well-being dietitian, adds: "With many children starting primary school this week we know that a quarter of children in primary one will be overweight or obese, this is about eight children in a class.

"To prevent children becoming overweight and the health risks associated with this, encouraging children to recognise when they are full is essential.

"This message from the campaign highlights to parents the need to be aware that children only need child-sized portions of all foods but also the importance of getting the balanced of healthier food right."

Dr Foley-Nolan advises that children don't need the same amount of food as adults and that a five-year-old should be eating about half of what mum and dad eats.

She suggests: "Parents can manage portions by being aware and using some techniques such as using smaller child-sized plates at mealtimes and giving a smaller portion to begin with - if children are still hungry, then give a little bit more.

"We know that any change to habits can be a challenge and we all want to nourish and nurture our children but giving them the right amount of all foods is key to their health."

Two local parents who are already reducing portion sizes and working with their young children on healthy eating share here how they have managed to keep their kids away from the biscuit tin.

‘He’s cut down on sweets and cakes and taken control of his own eating’

Jane Smyth (48), a PE teacher from Belfast, has been working with her son Mackenzie (11) to try and control his weight. MacKenzie is starting Methodist College this week and has been enjoying cooking his own healthy meals in the kitchen with his mum. Jane, who is married to Neale (48) a computer programmer, also has a younger son Archie, (9).

Jane says:

My boys are completely different and Archie is like muscles on a stick; he is a gymnast who can eat what he wants and doesn’t put weight on, whereas Mackenzie, while not overweight, was getting a wee bit of a tummy.

I didn’t want him to put on any more weight and at the same time was very conscious of not making an issue of it.

Mackenzie loves his food and has always asked for more. He also loves to cook and he loves to bake and eat it. We started by just asking him to try and make the right choices, with very simple things like taking fruit instead of a sugary snack and even plain chicken rather than breaded or fried chicken.

He would have grazed a lot during the day and simple things like getting him to think before taking a snack and leaving it for later as a treat has made a difference.

We also changed the size of his plate — which was rather big — down to a smaller one.

He is very into his food now and would come to Tesco’s and shop for his own ingredients and look at the red, green and amber on the labels. If he doesn’t think it’s healthy, he will not take it.

He enjoys cooking and putting in fresh ingredients which he knows are healthy.

We started this around a year ago when I could see him filling out a bit and because his brother is so wiry and small that gave him a bit of motivation as well.

It was actually quite easy because the changes were small and gradual.

He has really cut down on sweets, cakes and biscuits and has taken control of his own eating, which is great.

I think the key is to try and do it slowly and not put your child under pressure and to make very small changes and make them think about what they are eating.

It is about planting the seed to get  them to make the right choices.

Mackenzie says:

It was hard at first cutting down on my portion sizes, but it didn’t take long to get used to it. Basically you can still eat treats, but don’t have two things, just have one smaller amount of something.

I think you need to do it slowly and gradually decrease the amount of food you are eating, rather than just starving yourself.

I used to go back for seconds and now I am not doing that and it feels normal not to.

It was a bit tough at the start but you get into the habit and see the results. My brother is very slim and fit and that was a motivation for me.

I like to cook and can see what I am putting in my food.

Now I eat more chicken than beef, because there is less fat in it.

Sweet things are a favourite too, but now I have them less often.

My mum and I have started to walk or cycle every night and I feel happy because I can see a difference (in my weight).

A typical healthy day’s eating for Mackenzie

Breakfast: Weetabix or Special K instead of high sugar cereals like Coco Pops

Break: Fruit, Special K cereal bar instead of chocolate biscuits

Lunch: Wrap with chicken, fruit, low fat yoghurt, Go ahead biscuit

Dinner: Lean mince chilli, kidney beans, with homemade sauce instead of a jar of ready made sauce which can be high in sugar. Pitta pocket or wrap instead of white rice

Supper: Toasted ‘thins’ instead of bread with fruit

Daily snacks: Frozen mango pots, frozen yoghurt instead of ice cream, baked crisps

Drinks: High sugar fruit juices replaced with sparkling water, no-sugar dilute and semi-skimmed milk

‘Not snacking was hard but now I’ve treats after dinner’

Dorethy Davidson is a social worker from Lisburn who is married to Clifford, a civil servant, and has three children, Naomi (15), Faye (11) and Joel (8). She and Faye have been working together to create more awareness of healthy eating and being active. They recently joined their local ‘Couch to 5k Parkrun’ and have progressed to a jogging club.

Dorethy says:

My older daughter Naomi is tall and naturally thin and can eat whatever she wants and doesn’t gain weight, whereas Faye was starting to carry a wee bit of weight.

She was by no means overweight, but we thought prevention is better than cure.

We signed up together for the Couch to 5k in May and also talked about healthy eating.

I tried to make her realise what are good choices and that if she eats too much sweet stuff it can make her feel unwell and not function at her best.

The aim was to engage her in thinking more about what she ate. It can be a double-edged sword, though, as the last thing I wanted was for her to over think it in case she got too conscious, and I do worry about eating disorders.

It was important to do it from a health point of view, without her getting too hung up on it either.

She would have a sweet tooth and have been in the biscuit cupboard quite a bit. She likes eggs and beans and has been having that for breakfast, which is high in protein, rather than sugary cereals.

We also try and limit sweet stuff when we are getting the groceries.

We’ve enjoyed the running and now run twice a week and enjoy doing it together. It is small changes that have made the difference and also allowing her to take control herself.

Faye says:

I do feel better for thinking about what I eat and running. Not snacking was a bit hard at first, as it wasn’t what I was used to.

Now, I save treats for after dinner.

Previously I did eat too much chocolate, but now when I feel like having some I realise it is not the best for you.

I also enjoy running, it is a lot of fun.

A typical healthy day’s eating for Faye

Breakfast: beans or eggs, wholemeal toast, granola, berries and Greek yogurt at the weekend instead of a large bowl of cereal like Cheerios

Mid-morning: banana

Lunch: tuna and sweetcorn wrap, yogurt, orange, water. Faye makes her own packed lunch for school, occasional school dinner

After school: apple with peanut butter instead of biscuits

Dinner: Bolognese with mushrooms and carrots, wholemeal pasta, plain biscuit instead of chocolate biscuits and sweets. She also drinks more water through the day, as she realised sometimes she thought she was hungry but was in fact thirsty.

Safefood tips on portion sizes for children

  • give children smaller portions of food on their plates to start with and if they want more food, then give it to them
  • if they say they’re hungry, offer them something nutritious like fruit and vegetables such as an apple or handful of grapes
  • avoid having fatty and sugary snack foods freely available between and after meals
  • use plates and cutlery that match their size
  • don’t pressure them to eat all the food on their plate, allow them to stop when they say ‘I’ve had enough’
  • see more at:

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