In today’s fast paced society, everyone’s lifestyle has had to go through drastic changes to accommodate work, school, and other more pressing engagements. Because of this, a lot of things have had to take a back seat in most of people’s lives, and food is one of them. Most parents are unable or unwilling to cook elaborate meals because of their busy schedules and this has resulted in the time-consuming family dinners being replaced by easy to make sandwiches, wraps and other simple ‘fast’ foods. Fast foods can be healthy meals depending on how the meal was prepared. While healthy fast foods, such as salads or vegetarian burgers, can be considered as part of a wholesome daily diet, unhealthy fast foods (junk food), such as commercially sold burgers, french fries, pizzas, fizzy drinks, sweets and pastries should be consumed in moderation.
With the rise of fast food franchises in Africa, moderation is becoming exceedingly difficult to exercise. In spite of the risks of fast food, they appeal to everyone’s appetite irrespective of the age. However children and teenagers remain the most susceptible as adverts and billboards tend to target them specifically.
So how, as parents, can we ensure that our kids eat healthy food?
The first thing you should do is to fully understand the effects the junk foods are having on your children.
Diet has a significant effect on children’s study habits. Junk food and generally any foods with a high sugar content deplete energy levels and reduce their ability to concentrate for extended periods of time, which can have great negative effects on your children.When your child is in school he or she is expected to undertake several educational challenges, some that require long attention spans and stamina. Poor nutritional habits will eventually lead to poor academic performance and lowered IQ levels. The high content of sugar in junk food also causes fluctuation in blood glucose levels which makes them edgy and irritable, which gives them little motivation to be active. This will eventually have a negative effect on their ability to interact with friends and family, participate in sports and games, all which will damage their self esteem in the long run. Increased blood sugar also increases the chance of acquiring type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes increases the chances of heart disease by up to 4 times, damages the kidneys and increases the chances of Alzeihmer’s Disease and dementia when older.
The artificial sweeteners used to make junk food are extremely sweet and addictive. Children used to sweet foods may have difficulty readjusting their palates to relatively blander healthy foods. Most of the times these junk foods also contain food colours, which are often carcinogenic and harmful to the digestive system and in turn the whole body.
Junk foods are extremely high in sodium and/or potassium. Excesses of these two in the blood are a leading cause in the increase of blood pressure. Increased blood pressure can cause heart attacks, hypertension, strokes and even death.
Ensuring that your kids eat healthy foods can prove tricky, since most kids like to eat junk food as a substitute to meals or consume excess in between meals. Well, there are ways to handle this.
Guidelines for feeding children of all ages as published by the Australian Nutrition Foundation
Guideline 1: To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs
-Children and adolescents should eat sufficient nutritious foods to grow and develop normally. They should be physically active every day and their growth should be checked regularly
-Older people should eat nutritious foods and keep physically active to help maintain muscle strength and a healthy weight.
Guideline 2: Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five food groups every day
-Plenty of vegetables of different types and colours, and legumes/beans
-Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats , quinoa and barley
-Lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
-Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat
And drink plenty of water
Guideline 3: Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol
A. Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat such as many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks
-Replace high fat foods which contain predominately saturated fats such as butter, cream, cooking margarine, coconut and palm oil with foods which contain predominately polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado
-Low fat diets are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years
B. Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added salt
-Read labels to choose lower sodium options among similar foods
-Do not add salt to foods in cooking or at the table
C. Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as sugar sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks
Guideline 4: Care for your food and store it safely
Make meals and snack times fun for your children
Most parents fix up dinner at the last hour and this lacks variety. Try planning meals beforehand and add as much variety as possible. Find a system that works well with you and your family. Make sure that meal times are meal times. If you are making the children sit on the table, ensure you have your meals there too. Children like to eat what everyone is having, if you eat with them and eat healthy the children will grow to love healthy meals.
Do not offer meals as a reward
This makes the children know that one can eat meals for other reasons except being hungry. This will lead to binge eating and playing with food.
Everything in moderation
The health risks we have covered do not come about after one packet of crisps, but after excessive consumption of junk foods. Do not completely ban junk foods from your household, as this might cause them to eat unhealthy foods when you are not around. They can eat these foods once in a while. Instead teach them to be mindful of what they are eating.
If all the above does not work, the last resort can be consulting a dietician. This may look like a waste of money but believe me, it will be worth it. A dietician can recommend what is good and what to introduce with ease based on the child. Most recommended diets don’t always work for every child. Once the dietician gets a look at the child they can tell you things that are interesting and important for your child. A dietician isn’t someone you visit every day, but mostly when a child is changing and growing. You may be feeding your child what you know is healthy and good but it may not be right for the child and not helping in his/her development. Plus this a professional that deals with proper feeding of the child, they must have more knowledge of what to give a child.
In conclusion, a diet rich in greens, berries, other fruits and veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds is the best way to ensure kids get the right amount of nutrients they need to adequately supply their growing minds.