What the @#$! do I feed my child?

A blackboard used by Albert Einstein in a 1931 lecture in Oxford. Source: Creative Commons

I find maths and science quite soothing. There is something beautiful about straight numbers and clear cut conclusions. You must have already picked up on my love of graphs and diagrams. They got me through med school.

However, once you finish a beautifully straightforward equation or reach a perfectly logical conclusion using an algorithm you hit a little snag. How do you translate all these numbers to real life?

In the last few weeks I have read somewhere around 30+ journal articles on child metabolism alone. The numbers are simple, the graphs are straightforward but as we very well know the applications to child nutrition can be vastly different. For all the parents out there the only biochemical pathway they are likely to be interested in is the one between the fridge and the pantry.

Here is a short summary of my last few slightly dry posts on child metabolism (on conventional advice, BMRmalnutrition and catch up growth) and MY conclusions.

1. Children grow. Therefore children are not in “energy balance” in simple terms. The energy cost of growth is high including both the energy density plus quality nutrients to ensure lean body mass increase.

2. Energy quantity (calories) is important but ultimately you cannot build muscle and bone with broccoli or worse, orange cordial. The quality of nutrients needs to be concentrated to provide more bang for your buck: high nutrient density in a small volume fit for a small stomach.

3. Children regulate their energy needs with their appetite. No calorie calculators required. When the nutrient quality has been addressed the appetite will take care of the rest. If they are hungry they will eat.

4.  Babies, infants and children have less reserves to cope with malnutrition. Even a minor infection may potentially result in muscle loss.

5. Point 4 makes it obvious that it’s not a good idea to put children (=growing bodies) on calorie restricted diets for weight loss.

6. A decrease in activity is a pretty good marker for malnutrition especially for small children. This should give some worried-well parents some confidence, especially where breastfed babies are concerned. If you baby is happy and active it is likely that they are getting enough energy.

7. When children recover from even a minor infection their energy requirements are 4-5 times what they were before. They are going to be very hungry. Feed them. A lot.

8.The period of catch up growth during recovery puts children in a slightly vulnerable metabolic state. They seem more likely to develop insulin resistance (in skeletal muscle), sensitivity to glucose and store abdominal fat.

9. Point 8 makes you think that the post-recovery window is crucial for providing good nutrition for longer term gains. Maybe it is not a good time to provide sweet treats or let children laze around. My thoughts go towards fatty chewable chunks of meat and providing plenty of opportunities for spontaneous activity.

10. My personal way of identifying junk food: if a child is willing to have it after a steak dinner it’s junk. Nobody makes room for more meat or pumpkin when they are stuffed. But there is always stomach space to be found when lollies, cakes, milkshakes and ice-cream are on offer.

The diet recommended by our health authorities always confuses me. I assume (perhaps naively) that they read the same studies and they study the same physiology books. I’m stumped at how they arrive at their conclusions. Today Cancer Council NSW, backed by the Obesity Policy Coalition and the Parent’s Jury, announced the latest villains in the child obesity epidemic: Toucan Sam

and the Paddle Pop lion:

The research by Cancer Council NSW and the University of Sydney found  that 74% of supermarket products adorned with bright cartoon packaging are not up to our healthy nutritional standards. The specific complaints were high-sugar, high-salt and high fat. Apparently the adorable visages of cartoon characters and chiseled jaws of our sporting heroes are just too much for the little kiddies (and their parents) to resist.

“Although stopping short of calling for plain packaging (???) Cancer Council nutritionist Kathy Chapman said regulations around the marketing of foods to children were urgently needed.”

Deep breath. I am not defending sugary cereals. (Not entirely sure how the high-fat monster has slipped into the discussion since the foods in question are mostly low in fat to the point of deficiency. But that’s another matter). In fact, I’m happy to wear a t-shirt: “Friends don’t let friends eat cereal”.  I am more concerned about the whiff of a new scare campaign and propaganda. Plus, when it comes to my own child, I’m the one with a wallet, sorry kiddo.

The second issue is that we rely on these guys for their interpretation of science to tell us which foods are healthy and which are not. I hope we all agree that Froot-Loops are not exactly health food. Nobody buys those because they think that the multiple colours are indicative of the high antioxidant and phytonutrient content. On the other hand Kathy Chapman “welcomes cricketers fronting Weet-Bix” presumably because she thinks that this brand of bland cardboard-like blocks of processed wheat is a healthy alternative. Never mind that most children cover it with malt, sugar, fruit and honey just to make it palatable.

And because the University of Sydney (the home of GI) is involved in this story I’ll throw in a GI reference:

Froot-Loops 69
Weet-Bix 69


P.S. I have a very special guest post coming up for you next time. The guest is currently in the middle of the creative process and I am not sure how long before we see the final result. But I know it is going to be something.


10 thoughts on “What the @#$! do I feed my child?

  1. If there’s even a grain of truth in this it seems like a great way to alienate everyone. It’s patronising to those of us that believe we can judge for ourselves the quality of the contents, whether or not the packaging includes a cartoon character. The annoyed comments to the article also reflect how badly people react when faced with an interfering suggestion that they are somehow too stupid to judge a food by its cover.

    However, I’m going to optimistically hope that this is just media misinterpretation and that research into obesity in children did not actually conclude that cartoon characters are to blame. Or, that perhaps cartoon characters are to blame, and this whole thing is in fact just an episode of The Simpsons!

    • I like your optimism, Nick. Don’t forget that the Australian government is currently in court for trying to introduce plain packaging on cigarettes. Somehow I don’t think we are far off.

  2. I can’t believe poor Toucan Sam is being persecuted… Isn’t he just encouraging kids to eat a diverse and colorful breakfast? I thought that was part of the government’s message! Surely ‘froot flavor’ offers some of the same benefits as actual fruit!

    • I was wondering if they had Toucan Sam in the States. Good to know he encourages kids to have a nice multi-coloured sugar hit everywhere. Plus if you add a strawberry milkshake (dairy + fruit) you are practically MyPlate-compliant.

  3. I’ve been avoiding the middle aisles of my supermarkets for some time now, so much so that when I do venture in there for a few things of value the gaudy displays on all the boxes, bottles, and cans always strike me as ridiculous. When I buy meat, there’s a simple wrapper and label, and there’s the meat. Same goes for things like butter and fresh veggies. There’s no Percy the Pig, Carlton Cow, or Cathy the Carrot like there’s Toucan Sam, Cap’n Crunch, and Tony the Tiger. (Note how they’re not named anything like Charlie Cereal – the name has no relation to the product.)

    Feed your kids real food, and pay @#$!ing attention to their needs! Anything a company or government adds is just so much health-destroying bullshit.

    • Same here, Michael. I try to shop at the markets, butchers and fruit and veg grocers. But sometimes I just have to go to the big supermarkets. There I carefully navigate on the outside perimeter avoiding the rubbish in the middle. Pretty impressive that you know all the names 🙂 To write this post I had to look up who the Toucan Sam was. I just find it hilarious that of all the things wrong with our food system, the government deciders to focus on cartoon characters. Seriously? I’d say we have bigger problems like the actual CONTENT of those boxes. Thanks for your input, Michael, always valuable.

  4. I’m surprised that 74% of brightly coloured supermarket products are not healthy. Would have put it at 100% myself!

    Thanks for another great dose of common sense.

  5. Hello, this is my first comment here ; a friend gave me the link of your blog. very interesting statements about kids ; i always thought that when a kid was sick, he should’nt eat.
    Would you mind give me a link on your blog where i can find that satured fat is not bad (wich i have been taught all my life) ? i need to understand why, science wise, even if if my body tells me that is is OK !

    • Hi Adeline,

      You are right, when children are sick they reduce their appetite spontaneously. I was talking about a recovery period when their metabolic rate and appetite increase significantly to replenish the lost energy and nutrients.

      Regarding saturated fats. It is a difficult mind shift, considering we have been told for over 50 years now that these are bad for us. The problem is that prior to that humans have eaten animal fats for over 2 million years. Here are some good introductory articles:

      1. David Miller MD “Enjoy saturated fats, they are good for you!” 
      2. Gary Taubes “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” 
      3. Mary Enig PhD and Sally Fallon “The truth about saturated fat” 
      There is plenty more information as well as many actual studies. Check out my resources section. 

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