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Does my child need that snack? Developing healthy eating habits...
January 15th, 2013
Is snacking and grazing leading to bad habits?   By  Dr Clare Bailey, GP and parenting expert. 
My husband, Science journalist and presenter Michael Mosley,  has been in the press recently talking about the  benefits of Intermittent Fasting following the publication of ‘The Fast Diet’  and questioning the value of the concept of ‘Five-a-day’ on You And Yours.  The evidence for the benefits for adults of intermittent fasting is mounting; showing sustained weight loss, staying healthy (reduced diabetes, heart disease and cancer) and even living longer. 

Although fasting is not recommended for kids, I have been considering whether we could be helping our children to learn healthier eating habits. Are we raising kids to eat too much sweet and sticky stuff (almost certainly), to drink smoothies and fizzy drinks (about as unhealthy as each other) and to expect never to be hungry or even a bit peckish?  Since the 1970s we seem to have become a grazing and snacking society.

None of this occurred to me when my four children were young (my youngest is 13 now). We wanted them always to be comfortable - any hint of being a bit peckish they would have instant access to raisins, biscuits or snack bars. And we would never go anywhere without carrying the necessary supplies...even on a half hour trip. Did we imagine they would fade away? Or perhaps they would become impossible to manage as their blood sugar dropped further...anything might happen.

And as for eating before meal times, sometimes waiting half an hour before eating seemed an unreasonable demand on our poor darlings...

What are we teaching our children? That they need constant feeding on demand and that being a bit hungry before meals is intolerable?  Until the last few years, meals were at best 3 times a day for school aged children and usually little other than perhaps a glass of milk (massively more healthy than fruit drinks by the way) offered between.   And in the distant past for which our bodies seem to be designed, we ate big meals intermittently and little if anything in between.

Now many parents believe that giving fruit drinks is the healthier way to keep the wolf from the door. After all it is said to make up one of the all important recommended ‘5-a-day’.  Surprisingly the evidence for the health benefits of lots of fruit is questionable.  It appears that it is the vegetables that confer most of the health benefits of the ‘5-a-day’ and more specifically from green veg (rather than starchy vegetables such as  potatos).  As a GP I see a lot of parents who are trying to do the right thing but are making up the 5-a-day mostly with fruit as ‘He doesn’t like vegetables’ and more often than not much of this is given as fruit juices or smoothies.

In fact some dieticians call smoothies and other fruit drinks ‘obesity in a bottle’. A study in Australia showed that whilst eating apples decreases your risk of colon cancer, apple juice increases the risk. Once juiced, the sugars in the fruit go straight through the stomach into the intestine and give the body a sugar hit. Consequently fruit juices have a high GI whereas most fruits have a relatively lower GI.  In addition to the sugar load, drinking a glass of apple juice is equivalent to the sugar content of eating roughly 5 or more apples. So by the time the skin is removed and the antioxidants, nutrients and healthy roughage with it, you really are left with the sugar! Whereas eating the fruit itself, due to the roughage, results in the sugars being broken down and released into the blood more slowly. This helps to keep hunger at bay.

If we are designed for feast and fast, and in the context of the childhood ‘obesity epidemic’, how do we help our children learn healthier eating habits which will set them up for life? Here are a few suggestions

1.       Help your child learn to wait a few minutes longer before eating and praise them for waiting patiently. Slowly increase the interval they are expected to wait (and keep praising them for doing so)

2.       Try not to get hooked in by whining & protests if they don’t want to wait. Remember if you give in, they will simply go on louder and longer next time.

3.       If possible get rid of or hide snacks, and if you need to, offer a small healthy snack at a planned time not too close to the next meal. This way you are in control of timing rather than waiting for your child to complain.

This way your child also learns to wait rather than to expect instant gratification. As far as my kids go, so far they aren’t overweight but I suspect they would still prefer to graze. 

Michael Mosley explaining The Fast Diet on BBC1 Breakfast TV: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01387cv
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