We’ve all heard about the ‘obesity timebomb’ and the risks to health of conditions such as diabetes, but what can be done about it? Attention to diet is the key, and educating yourself about healthy eating is the most vital element in protecting your kids’ health.
A Local Government Association report in 2018 concluded that more than 22,000 children would leave primary school dangerously obese that year. The number of 10- and 11-year-olds classed as severely obese in the final year of primary school is also nearly double that of those in reception years.
The LGA warned that the severe child obesity rates contributed to a “multi-billion-pound ill-health time bomb”.
The serious health risks of severe obesity include diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Severe obesity can also shorten life by 10 years, equivalent to the effects of lifelong smoking.
With public health budgets being cut, it’s more important than ever that parents prevent their children becoming obese, and then becoming obese adults.
Measures such as the sugar tax and food labelling may help, but a basic understanding of nutrition and healthy eating is all that’s needed for a good start. The BDA, the Association of UK Dieticians, advises that children need regular meals and snacks to get energy and nutrients, but their needs change with age.
The BDA’s experts say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as a good meal improves concentration during the morning. Later in the day, eating together as a family and avoiding distractions encourages healthy eating. Serve water with meals to ensure good hydration, which improves memory and concentration.
Each of the four main healthy food groups should be offered every day. They are: starchy foods; fruit and vegetables; milk and dairy; and meat, fish, eggs and beans.
m the first group, which includes bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and grains such as couscous or breakfast cereal, and scones, buns, muffins, crumpets or cereal bars for snacks. For children who are over five years old, wholegrain varieties are a better option as they are healthier and more filling.
We all know that we should have our ‘five a day’ of fruit and vegetables, but there are many ways to supply this; fresh, frozen, tinned (in own juice), dried, or as juice. Try to include both fruit and vegetables in main meals, and use fruit as a snack or to make smoothies.
If your child is aged four to six and attends a fully state-funded infant, primary or special school in England, they’re entitled to receive a free piece of fruit or vegetable each school day.That provides one of their Five-A-Day portions and increases awareness of the importance of eating fruit and vegetables, encouraging healthy eating habits as they grow up.
The milks and dairy food group provides children with protein and calcium which are essential for healthy bone development. Sources include milk, cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais. Non-dairy alternatives to cows’ milk can be given from the age of one but ensure these are fortified with calcium and unsweetened.
Aim to provide three servings of calcium-rich food per day–for example, a 150ml glass of milk, a small pot of yoghurt and a matchbox-sized piece of cheese. Children under two should have full-fat milk and dairy foods, then semi-skimmed milk can be introduced if they are growing well. Children over the age of five can follow a healthy diet suitable for the whole family.
Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein like lentils and peas, and foods made from pulses like tofu, hummus and soya mince are excellent sources of protein and iron. A variety of these foods are needed two to three times a day.
Swap and Serve
A few simple substitutions will make it easier for the whole family to stick to a healthy eating plan, and ensure that children avoid health problems in later years.
- Replace fried foods with grilled, steamed or baked options.
- Choose water or semi-skimmed milk instead of fizzy drinks and squashes
- Thrown out sugary cereals, go for porridge or wholegrain
- Cut down on salt, use herbs and spices instead
- Replace white bread with wholegrain
- Select leaner cuts of meat
- Swap creamy sauces for tomato or vegetable-based
In addition to these diet changes, supplements can be helpful. Children aged six months to four years should be given a supplement containing vitamins A, C and D, and children over the age of one should be given vitamin D daily supplements, particularly in autumn and winter.
Remember that eating is fun, so involve children in shopping, encourage them to choose different foods, get them interested in cooking, and encourage them to talk about healthy eating. The diet choices you make now will make all the difference to your kids’ health in later life.