We have all seen TV footage which normally accompanies the “childhood obesity epidemic” stories. Strangely headless muffin-topped children’s bodies in oversized t-shirts, digging into a packet of chips or clutching an ice-cream, filmed walking out of a fast-food joint with their obese parents. You’ve all seen it, right? This picture is remarkably divisive: some of us come pouring out with indignant accusations (“child abuse”, etc), some shrug off the criticism recognising themselves or friends. Dismissing the unlikely scenario that the parents of the 25% of overweight and obese children in Australia really don’t give a toss about their offspring (let’s work on the assumption that most people love their kids) what do we do?
Whether you are a parent or plan to become one some day you might feel legitimately concerned about how to keep your child out of similar news footage.
You might want to do what any responsible parent would do to find information: google it. A cursory search for “healthy eating for children” has yielded a staggering 19 500 000 results. So far so good: almost 20 million ways to avoid being a weight statistic. Encouraging to see so many experts.
But you don’t have to be a doctor, a nutritionist, an organic biochemist or a passionate Paleo convert to know a thing or two about kids. First, they are small. They have small stomachs, small mouths, small hands and small appetites compared to an adult. Second, they are not just “little grown ups”. They have unique needs for growth and development.
Put these two assertions together: high needs/small appetite. That makes me think that we need something nutritionally dense in a small package. Let’s see what the Healthy Kids Association (a very official looking site) says on the subject.
The Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents in Australia (DGCA) recommends that for best health children should “enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods”.
Why such concern about variety? Sounds like we are calculating that if we cast the net wide enough, sufficient nutrients will hopefully get inside those little bodies. Every parent knows that extra food volume equals extra drama at the dinner table. If you put 5 different types of veggies on little Johnny’s plate hoping that one of them fulfills the vitamin C quota you might be setting yourself up for failure. It doesn’t look like we are aiming for the bull’s eye: that small package of condensed nutrition. “Eat a balanced diet” is a nutritional equivalent of sitting on the fence. Let’s find something more specific.
According to the official HealthyKids website (I’m sensing a certain lack of originality here) courtesy NSW Government there are 5 ways for your children to be healthy.
1. Get active each day
Sounds great, albeit oddly contrasted with the mantra of the 19th century: “children should be seen and not heard”. All those quiet well behaved children back then clearly had a weight problem.
2. Choose water as a drink
In the world where soft drinks (sodas) are the daily norm this statement does not sound bizarre anymore.
3. Eat more fruit and veggies
I’m all for fruit and veggies. But what does “more” mean? More than what? Is the total amount of fruit and veggies per day uncapped? And if I could make an objective assessment that my child does not have “enough” you’d think that I would also work out that she needs “more”.
4. Turn off the TV or computer and get active
I thought we have already covered that one. What if you have a Wii-Fit? Does it count as active? Because I think it requires having the TV on? (we don’t own a Wii-Fit, or Nintendo or X-box so I’m not sure how it all works). Is doing wii-boxing better than doing none? What about those schools that use Wii instead of sport?
5. Eat fewer snacks and select healthier alternatives
Spot on. What are the healthier alternatives?
Here is a list from the snack page:
Fruit muffins or slices, baked using monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils and margarine instead of butter
Fresh, frozen, canned (in natural or unsweetened juice) or dried fruit
Raisin or fruit toast
Toasted English muffins, preferably wholemeal or wholegrain
Reduced fat custard with fruit
Rice crackers or corn cakes
Plain popcorn (unbuttered and without sugar coating)
Muesli and fruit bars – look for the healthier choices or those with the Heart Foundation Tick.
Scones or pikelets (plain, fruit or savoury)
Plain breakfast cereals, such as wheat breakfast biscuits, topped with sliced banana with a drizzle of honey
Snack-sized tub of reduced fat yoghurt (plain or fruit flavoured)
Cubes, slices, shapes or wedges of reduced fat cheese with wholegrain crackers or crispbread
Potatoes, topped with reduced fat cheese and baked in the microwave or oven.
Corn on the cob
A boiled egg (wow, and I almost lost hope at this point)
Question: since when have desserts become acceptable snack items?
So how much have we learned so far about child nutrition from popular media and health policy providers? Not much. Still clear as mud. More googling unearths the mention of the Food Pyramid, or MyPlate for my American friends. The development of this extremely intricate logo and the accompanying website has so far cost the American Government over $2 million. According to my calculations a nasty fake-meat patty on a “plastic bread” bun topped with flavor-free lettuce and tomato and served with banana milkshake is totally MyPlate-compliant. I can’t wait for an Aussie version. MyPie, anyone?
If you are still unclear on what to pack in school lunch boxes there are also the recommendations on the number of servings. Some recommend 1/2 serve of meat or fish a day, some go for 2-3. I’ve now spent a few hours browsing popular healthy kids sites and I’m still not closer to an answer.
Out of the confusion rises one common pattern. Every child-related website/book/magazine is full of it. It’s that child nutrition is soooooo difficult. Anybody under 18 is represented as a hardcore junk food addict and they will hold your household hostage until you give them that pizza. Here is a few titles and phrases.
Feeding your children is a challenging experience
Tips for fussy eaters
Persevere, keep trying
Ingredients in disguise
Do not ban foods – they will only want them more (Is that how we feel about giving children alcohol as well?)
How to hide more vegetables in a pie
Snacking challenges in the shops (C’mon, is it really that hard to survive a 2 hr shopping trip without a top-up?)
On the other hand the advice of introducing solids to babies generally includes phrases like “delicate palate”, “bland foods preferred”, “many flavors are too strong”.
How does a baby with a pure clean delicate palate turn into a toddler incapable of staying sane in a confectionary aisle? Shouldn’t a 50 year old have more addiction issues with 50 years worth of bad habits? Let’s not even mention the fact that most toddlers do not own a wallet let alone the ability to navigate a self-serve checkout. Oops, I just mentioned it.
It shouldn’t be this hard. What nutrients are essential for growth? I’m sorry but bagels and peanut butter are not essential. However after hours of perusing popular health websites a normal and slightly befuddled parent would come to believe that perhaps they are.
Maybe we should stop assuming that our kids cannot survive without muffins, waffles and milkshakes. Stop making “acceptable” healthy substitutes whether it is low-fat/low-carb/Paleo/vegan/gluten free just to avoid a tantrum. Remember Shakespeare? A pancake under any other name…
I know we are parents but do we have to be so damn patronising? Give your children some credit. They might surprise you.
This rant was inspired by my recent research into child nutrition. Next post I promise to bring you some science on this fascinating topic. Trivia question of the day: what is the average percentage of body fat in a newborn?