Playing hostage to your child

I was trying to find a picture of a child gnawing on a bone. But apparently it doesn't send the right message

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?)

Constant struggle

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.

They are low-carb, I swear!

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?


35 thoughts on “Playing hostage to your child

    • Pretty telling. Your granddaughter looks gorgeous. I know many a grandparent who wants more control over their grandchildren 🙂

  1. “what is the average percentage of body fat in a newborn?”

    Well, this was surprisingly difficult to find and I am not certain I have found it even yet… but here is some interesting information on the subject. (is BAT the same as average body fat? or is that just a special fat?) I saw on another website this morning someone complaining about a new study they saw in the UK this morning… ah the grapevine does run fast… here I am in Texas quoting a UK person, to an Australian about a new study from this morning!

    “a ‘new study’ into the weight of babies at birth. Apparently underweight babies are more likely to contract serious illnesses later in life, like diabetes (no news as to whether this is type 1 or type 2”

    Here is what I was able to find about average percentage of body fat in a newborn, though I am not sure this is a real average of all fat. I kinda of doubt it is all the fat, as healthy babies normal do look fatter than 2-7% to me!

    “CHAPTER 11
    The Importance of Fat
    “A fat baby is a cute baby,” says Professor Tom Brenna of Cornell University. And the real question is, why do humans make fat babies? Chimpanzees don’t, baboons don’t. Humans are the only primates born with fat. And we put that fat on for very good reasons.” We do it for our brains… Newborns can increase their metabolic rate by 200-300%, according to Blackburn, and the way they do this is largely through harnessing the power of brown adipose tissue (BAT). Brown fat is found in newborn animals of many species, as well as in animals that hibernate. In a full-term human newborn, BAT accounts for 2-7% of the infant’s weight and is concentrated in the back and nape of the neck, as well as around the heart, lungs, esophagus, liver, and kidneys. Only very small amounts of BAT remain in adults, mostly located around the kidneys and aorta. ”

    Putting Science to the side and simply making a guess, like when one guesses the number of jelly beans in a giant jar, I would say…hmmm brain is mostly fat… size of baby, size of brain, volume of bones, muscle, high water content…. 25% to 30% or more??? That is a wild guess and probably off by a lot.

    Babies are not supposed to be skinny, unless they are very sick and malnourished. Maybe it also depends on where this baby was born? Was his/her mother starving? Was she well fed? I know a baby will take what it needs from the mother, but if the mother doesn’t have it to be taken it is not there to nourish to baby. Looking forward to the article and the answers!



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  3. Here are some cute ones I found, but not sure if they are public domain …


  4. I had a strange run-in with my kid’s pre-school teacher. She pulled me aside to let me know that my 4 y/o doesn’t always like what I send with her to eat. Was I okay with her not eating all of her lunch sometimes?

    Um, yes? If I let the kid pick what she wanted she’d have cookies for lunch every day. If she’s hungry enough, she’ll eat what I give her – if she’s not, it doesn’t bother me for her to go without food for a few hours. She’s not going to starve herself (though friends of friends have kids who will, literally, drop to the bottom of the growth charts with their picky eating-ness).

    • I have to remind my daughter that if she is full after her eggs and sausages for breakfast she doesn’t have to eat lunch. I feel pretty silly when she turns around and gives that “obviously, Mum” look. Would love to see your teacher trying to force all those healthy foods into your daughter’s mouth. How do you know the food is junk? If children can eat it when they are full. Works for adults too.

  5. All I can say is I wish I’d known what I know now when my kids were growing up. I didn’t do a horrible job–my kids as adults are normal weight with pretty normal metabolisms and aren’t junk food junkies. My son is T1 diabetic, but…so are two of his cousins. But if I had it to do over, I would certainly have emphasized meats, veggies, and full fat dairy and done with a lot less bread, pasta, and potatoes and dessert would have been for special occasions, only! And I would never have brought vegetable oil, crisco, or margarine into the house! They drank milk mostly, not soda, but I also gradually switched them to skim milk, (not when they were toddlers, though) for which I am eternally regretful. Oh well, hind sight is 20-20. Looking forward to your next post.

  6. It’s so hard for kindergarten teachers – they have about a third of parents harassing them to make their kids eat more, so sometimes they assume all parents feel that way.

  7. Just found your site via That Paleo Guy, great reading, thanks! I sometimes find it hard to think of things for my son’s lunchbox (especially when I find out that he’s traded his salmon or sushi lunch for the chocolate pudding of the boy he sits next to). If I didn’t know about primal I would assume that the ‘healthy’ kids’ snacks in the local health food shop were good for my kids. Luckily I know different, but agree that most people wouldn’t…my hubby and I eat primal so the kids have to too (chocolate pudding aside…). Looking forward to reading more.

    • Thanks Liz. Jamie sends many readers my way. Here is what we put into lunchboxes (my daughter is 9): cold meats, pieces of cheese, carrot and capsicum sticks, pickled gherkins and onions, cut up sausages, sushi, fruit, cold meatballs, chicken drumsticks, leftover steak cubed, boiled egg halves. And since she has a full breakfast she is not that hungry anyway. There are a few websites with good recipes: Paleo Parents comes to mind. Good luck!

    • There are some wonderful low carb dessert recipes. I make a chocolate fudge that is fought over, by low carbers and junk foodies both and it contains coconut oil, full fat heavy cream, coco powder, a dash of salt and sugar free sweeteners (I am diabetic, so I always use sugar free). Maybe the cream would make it taboo for a paleo diet…but you can make a less luscious one leaving out the cream or you can always make “forgotten cookies”.

      “Forgotten cookies” are egg whites beaten into meringues with sweetener, dash of vanilla extract then small bits of pecan folded in. Bake on parchment paper or Silpat by teaspoonfuls at 250 F for a few minutes, then turn the oven off and prop the door open just a bit. Leave them overnight they come out the next morning as light, crisp cookies. Bet your kid wouldn’t trade those away!

      Try googling these recipes if you want more specific details… some add lemon extract and make lemon meringue cookies, others add chocolate chips. I can’t do the chocolate chips myself, but egg whites and tree nuts are healthy and sound primal to me.

      There are just so many good, yet healthy, recipes out there!

  8. Glad you’re researching into this area. I have a particular interest in this seeing my little girl is turning 1 this week. I’m also interested in knowing the best sources of nutrition, particularly when breastfeeding isn’t successful (I could only do 6 weeks due to low milk supply issues) and have had to use formula. Looking forward to the next installment 🙂

  9. Kids are so smart and so manipulative and will just bug you to no end. My 2 yo will ask for a biscuit every day after breakfast and every day the answer is ‘no’…but he doesn’t stop asking. But it is up to parents to be diligent and say ‘no’. And its funny what starts to happen. Just yesterday the same said child asked me for a biscuit in the afternoon to which my answer was ‘no’ so then he asked me for a ‘scambled hegg’ to which I said yes, which took me about 3 minutes to have on the plate up at the table for him to consume!!!

  10. Anastasia, I really enjoy this blog – thanks so much for the time you put into these notes. 🙂

    I have a 5 month old and we’ll obviously be starting solids soon. Casting aside the CW (rice cereal, etc), can I please ask what you would start your child on?

    • Hi Rich, thanks for the comment. I wish I could be in your shoes right now, starting your baby on the best foods, experimenting with the best nutrition and flavours. If I had to do it all again I’d add meat and egg yolk (not egg white) to the traditional pumpkin and avocado. Also I wouldn’t rush with pure starches like rice and potato as I understand that baby’s amylase level might not be at adequate levels as yet. Fermented foods are good too, excluding baby yoghurt-like sweet substance traditionally sold in the supermarkets. Check out Weston A Price foundation the advice on traditional nutrition for weaning. Hope it goes well, it’s a trial and error and then another trial.

  11. That list of “healthy” alternative snacks was rather depressing reading. I am almost surprised they didn’t recommend dipping the boiled egg in reduced fat chocolate after reading the rest of the list. Can children not even be expected to eat banana now unless it is drizzled with honey?

    • Yeah, I know, seeing a plain boiled egg was a shock after everything above it. And this is the official version too. You might as well feed them sugar, sugar, some wheat husks, some sugar and be done with it.

  12. Of course, it’d be nice if people would look more at general health and not just at weight. It is a MYTH, people, that fat kids grow up to be fat adults and skinny kids grow up to be skinny adults. Actor Jerry O’Connell (more known in the States than Oz, probably) started out as a fat child and he’s normal weight now. I started out as a slender kid and I’m over 200 pounds now at 5’6″. (Working on it. I have my good days and my bad days.) And it’s also a MYTH that fat adults have fat children. My daughter is fiftieth percentile on the height/weight charts last we looked.

    I’m pretty sure I was metabolically deranged for most of my childhood, especially adolescence, and I *know* I was in my twenties and early thirties. I’m *still* not out of the woods. But I didn’t become overweight til I was 21, and didn’t go obese til I was thirty.

    Oh, I had horrific dietary habits. I know that now. But no one ever said anything to me while I wasn’t fat, and I had no idea what I was doing. I figured if I took my vitamins I’d be OK. Well, you really are dependent on the vitamin manufacturer to put the right nutrients in there–which, unfortunately, most of them still aren’t doing. Beta carotene instead of vitamin A, cyanocobalamin instead of methylcobalamin, folic acid instead of folate (yes, there is a difference), vitamin K1 or K2 mk-7 instead of K2 mk-4, D2 instead of D3. The fun never ends. God forbid anyone have to pay more than five dollars a bottle for their supplementation. And then on top of that their food is nutritionally void.

    One of my exes is skinny as a rail and apparently subsists mostly on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Mountain Dew with the occasional real meal thrown in for flavor. He has high blood pressure. He thinks he inherited it from his father. He tells himself all the sugar is OK because he exercises it off. I figure he’ll have a stroke in another decade or so. No one will ever criticize him or call him on his bad diet–because he’s not fat.

    I wonder if slender people will ever wake up and realize the fat-bashing is hurting them too. It sure hurt me.

    • Dana, I totally agree. I think obesity/overweight is an easy target because it is obvious. People will judge what you eat and do all the time just because of size. You can have a banana and someone will make a comment (good or bad, “congrats on eating healthy” or “do you know how many carbs it has?”). Skinny people are naturally exempt. I hear this all the time when people talk about Asian, Indian and Italiian populations eating what they do: “They look skinny therefore xyz food is totally fine”. This completely disregards the disease burden in these populations. Like the fact that BMI of 23 in an Asian is the equivalent to 25 in the assessment of health risk. And that they are much more likely to develop diabetes and heart disease while in a normal weight range .
      Look after yourself, Dana. Repairing metabolism might take years but you are doing the right thing by educating yourself and looking for answers.

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