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How Food Shapes Your Child

What you feed your kids shapes how they'll eat for the rest of their lives so get them into good eating habits.

Sugar and spice, and all things nice – it may sound good when you sing it out loud, but it’s definitely something Louise Mercieca doesn’t live by – especially when it involves feeding kids.

Nutritional therapist and award-winning author of How Food Shapes Your Child, Louise is seriously passionate about what we feed our kids. Her aim is to help parents learn about how the food we feed our kids, impacts their bodies. We caught up with her to discuss how to promote healthy eating for our kids. Take it away Louise…

In what ways does sugar affect children’s attention?

Children, just like adults perform best when they have even blood sugar levels  – any rise in blood sugar will lead to a drop and when this happens, it doesn’t just affect attention, but also mood (irritability leading to aggressive behaviour).  It alters their ability to process and retain information as memory is affected longer term by sugar too – neurological research links a high sugar diet to a smaller hippocampus, this is the area of the brain linked to memory.

Can an active child consume anything they want because they’ll just ‘burn it off’?

No! Absolutely not. I hear this argument often but unfortunately even in a slim child a diet containing an excess of salt, sugar and fat (particularly trans-fats) will place an unnecessary burden on their little bodies.  I go into more detail in my book about how a child’s detoxification system is not as developed as adults therefore, this type of diet places a huge (if invisible) burden on them biologically.

Parents often reward their kids with a ‘sweet treat’ after eating their meal but this undermines any healthy eating habits. How can we break this cycle and what ‘replacement’ would you suggest, if any.

This is a really important subject. There’s strong links between eating habits in childhood and adult eating issues, including emotional eating, often rewarding or comforting with food will lead to emotional eating adults. Similarly I do not advise using food as punishment i.e. making your child sit there until that broccoli has gone – it makes broccoli the enemy and we don’t want that.

How can you be healthy on a budget?

Yes, but it does require planning and preparation as my nutritional advice is always to avoid processed foods.  Buying convenient healthy food is a lot more expensive but it is definitely possible to cook easy, nutritious and economical meals for eg making your own sauces is a great way to add in loads of nutrients (especially veggies your kids might not eat) and it is much cheaper too. In my book I have a Hidden Veg Pasta Sauce, you can put in loads of veg and I use it everywhere including chilli and risottos.

Are too many carbs bad for kids?

Carbs are not ‘bad’ for anyone but an excess of refined carbs is so limit the amount of white carbs, white pasta, bread rice as they don’t contain as many nutrients as the wholegrain options. Nutrition is a balancing act of getting both the right macro and micro nutrients but it is important to remember that children are slightly different to adults.  For example I always suggest with adults to switch from anything white to wholegrain carbohydrates to get the Fibre and the B Vitamins but for children (particularly under 5’s) these carbs can be far too filling for their little tummies and can add too much fibre thus bulking up their poo too much!

The NHS introduced a tip when buying packaged snacks – to look for ‘100kcals saying it’s not about calorie counting for the kids – how much of this is a good ‘tip’ to live by?

It isn’t and I do not like this campaign! I see a lot of damage when working with adults over counting calories, it is a warped relationship with food  and is definitely not something to encourage children to do.  The other important factor is that the number of calories does not determine the nutrient value of the food , in fact often something promoted as low calorie has very little nutritional value.  This campaign is actually guilty of promoting <100kcal snacks that are entirely nutrient devoid (empty calories)

So how much sugar should kids actually eat a a day?

There is no recommended nutrient value for sugar as there is with other foods.  The advice is that exceeding certain amounts is detrimental to health rather than a recommended daily intake.  There is no guideline intake amount for under 4’s as it shouldn’t feature in their diet but foods targeting this age-group are often high in sugar.

Weaning with sweet foods such as flavoured yogurts and giving sweets and cakes to under 4’s particularly under 2’s encourages sweet cravings, develops a sweet palate (so other foods become less appealing) and the child expects synthetic sweetness meaning that they are more likely to be fussier eaters.

Any advice on how to help break the habit of snacking?

There is nothing wrong with snacking as long as it is on the right foods and that snacking does not replace meals. There’s loads of ideas in my book and I try to mix up sweet and savoury so snacking isn’t always linked to a sweet experience.  Veg sticks and home made dips, fruit canapes, breadsticks are all good options

Louise’s top 5 tips to help develop and promote healthy eating habits for kids:

1. Avoid sweetened yogurts as they are full of sugar, sweeteners and often other artificial ingredients.  It is cheaper and healthier to use natural/Greek yogurt and some real fruit or honey for over 1’s.

2. Check the ingredients – if there are things that you don’t recognise as food (if they sound more like chemicals they probably are) and if the ingredient list is very long.

3. On a similar theme – there is a fat which is incredibly bad for us but especially bad for children.  If you see Trans-fats/hydrogenated vegetable oil in a product avoid it. The majority of processed foods will contain trans-fats – look out for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredients and avoid by all means. Fats are essential for children’s brain development but trans-fats are the wrong type of fats and do more harm than good.

4. Involve children in what food is good and what is bad for them.  Children should have knowledge of what they eat and they are capable of making informed decisions.

5. Squash and drinks that are called ‘fruit’ but contain no actual fruit are best avoided as these are full of sugar, sweeteners and artificial ingredients. It is better for their palate, mood, gut health and teeth to just drink water, milk or make some of the suggestions in my book!

Louise also runs regular webinars on a number of nutritional subjects for adults and children via her website. Watch out for her appearing on the Food Channel with Early Years TV very soon too.

Grab a copy of her award-winning book, How Food Shapes Your Child, and save 20% off using the code MUDDY.

Louise Mercieca

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