If you have children of your own, you should do everything you can to help them to a healthy lifestyle and way of eating. Even if they aren’t overweight – as is the case with the majority of children – it is still important to get them into the habit of ‘eating right’.
For most overweight people, it is the eating habits learned as children that are the root of their problems. And the reason why many children and teenagers who eat poor, high- fat, high-sugar, low-nutrient foods don’t always have a weight problem is that they are at their most active during those years and are constantly growing. So they can support a very high-calorie intake without putting on weight. The small percentage who do get fat in childhood are probably very inactive and may have metabolic rates slower than average. Indeed, they may also eat more than average. But once children leave school, most of them tend to become much more inactive. Yet they carry on eating just as many of the high-fat, high- sugar foods as before, and gradually they put on weight.
In their twenties, many young adults will succumb to overweight as, like the majority of us, they give up almost all forms of exercise. It follows therefore that, rather than waiting until they are fat and then having to do something about it, the answer is to influence our children’s diet and exercise habits right from the start.
There are very many things you can d0 to help if you are a parent, but first you need to know that growing children have one or two slightly different nutritional needs from their parents. Here are some general guidelines:
Children under five years of age should never be given a very low-fat diet or too many fibre-rich foods. Children under two need whole milk to ensure adequate growth. Semi-skimmed milk can be gradually introduced from the age of two, provided the overall diet is adequate. From the age of five to eleven they can drink skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and eat more fibre.
Growing children need plenty of protein and calcium in relation to their height, so the portions of lower-fat dairy products, lean meats and fish, poultry and pulses should certainly be as big as an adult woman’s.
Girls at puberty need plenty of iron (from lean red meat, leafy greens, dried fruits, sardines, whole grain cereals and wholemeal bread, for instance).
Children who are slim and have voracious appetites should fill up on the healthy carbohydrates such as bread (not necessarily wholemeal), potatoes, pasta, rice and pulses, fresh and dried fruits.
If you want to ensure that your children grow up without the weight problems you have faced, here are the twelve best things you can do to influence that:
Don’t offer sweet treats as a reward for good behavior or as consolation (for hurting themselves, being bored, etc.). Instead, offer fruit, or preferably, nonfood rewards and palliatives. Don’t give pre-school children sweets at all.
Don’t offer dessert to a child as a reward for eating up the main course. That gives them the idea that somehow the sweet course is worth more than the main course.
Lead the way to healthier, slimmer eating by setting a good example. If children are brought up on a healthy diet based on the pyramid style of eating (but taking into account their specific nutritional needs), they will consider this the norm, and they will enjoy their food like any other child. Talk to your child about why it is important to give your body healthy fuel – they will understand and may be wiser than you give them credit for. They will also understand how the TV ads are influencing them.
Make mealtimes as much fun and as relaxing as you can, with as much variety as you have time to offer. Remember, convenience foods don’t have to be ‘bad for you’. Pasta, baked beans, things on toast, and fruit-based desserts are all quick, easy and nutritious.
Start feeding your children well as early on as possible. Eating tastes are simply habits built over a long period.
Encourage your children to cook and take an interest in food. Don’t let your children grow up thinking that a meal is just a ready-made dish you heat in a microwave. Help them to find interesting recipes in books and magazines and encourage them to invent their own dishes based on their favorite foods. Have a weekly cook-in session instead of watching TV.
Older children, who may resist change, can easily be given a slimmer, healthier diet by using all the ‘swops’ techniques you learnt in Steps Three and Four. Swop ordinary burgers for extra lean ones; crinkle chips for oven ones; butter for low-fat spread in sandwiches; mayonnaise or salad cream for reduced- calorie, low-fat dressings; and use lower- fat ice cream, cream and custard. Reduced-sugar items, like low-sugar baked beans and tomato ketchup and calorie-free squashes are useful too. But in the long term it is best to swop fizzy sugary drinks for more natural alternatives.
Plan ahead to make sure older children who spend much time away from the house don’t have to eat from takeaways or vending machines. Give them instant snacks to take with them, such as yogurt, fruit, fromage fra is, dried fruit or packs of ready-shelled unsalted nuts (high in fat but a more nutritious alternative than many of the items they will find in a machine).
Packed lunches may be preferable to giving children money to choose their own lunch (especially if their school doesn’t have a good cafeteria). Nowadays, with insulated lunch boxes and wide-necked flasks, you can pack virtually anything, from soups in winter to yogurts in summer.
If your children habitually leave food on their plates, get into the habit of giving them less, rather than making them eat up everything on their plate. So many overweight adults tell me that they were given over-large portions as children and made to eat everything even when they were full. You can always give second helpings if children are still hungry, or fill them up with bread or fruit.
Don’t give sweet refined foods or commercial snacks if children are hungry between meals. Offer bread spread with Marmite or pure fruit spread; Crisprolls with vegetable pate; yogurt; a banana; home-made popped corn; a home-made scone; some unsalted nuts, or sunflower seeds.
When children are thirsty, offer them water or mineral water or, for a change, try fruit juice mixed with sparkling mineral water, or a milk shake made from semi-skimmed milk and a banana, whirred in a processor.