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Common problems in the diet of children

Not enough fruit and vegetables

The NHS advises that everyone should have 5 portions of fruit or vegetable a day.  This level can be reached if fruit is given as snacks: a banana is a very useful thing to keep with you all the time in case your child suddenly gets hungry while you are out shopping.  Dried fruit is also very useful as a snack and can be added to breakfast cereals or porridge, either cut up very small or pureed.  Every meal, even when your baby is young should have vegetables with it (potatoes don’t count).  If you start this when you are beginning to wean your baby, she will get used to the taste of vegetables and it will be much easier later on to carry on the habit.  All children need the vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegetables to develop properly.

Too much sugar

Not only does this lead to surges in energy followed by a low which results in a tired and grumpy child, it also leads to tooth decay.  A third of all children have tooth decay before they even start school.  One of the main causes of tooth decay is sugary drinks.  It is much better to give your child water or milk as a drink during the day rather than juices or squash, however dilute.  Even drinks which are labelled “no added sugar” can be very sweet, because fruit sugars are allowed even if granulated sugar is not.  A child who is used to drinking juice all the time will begin to expect to have a sweet taste in her mouth routinely, and may refuse to drink water or milk, which are very important for the body.

Snacks

Many snacks which are marketed at children are what the Food Commission calls “Fake Foods”.  They have the cheapest ingredients, lots of additives, colourings and sweeteners and are bulked out by low nutrition starches and added water.  Additives and colourings, labelled as E numbers may also make behavioural problems and eczema worse.  A look at the ingredients list will show what is in any product.  But if you don’t want to spend your life reading the tiny print on an ingredients list, you can buy foods you know are nutritionally well balanced.  Rice cakes are an excellent snack as is a wholemeal bread sandwich, banana, avocado etc.

We all like giving our children treats and puddings, and this is fine, what you want to avoid is a snack or meal which just has sugary/ fatty foods, without whole grains which will keep your child fuller for longer and will prevent the sudden rush of energy followed by a crash.   Also try to give sugary sweets occasionally, not every day.  Making a cake with wholemeal flour, or flapjacks with jumbo oats and adding dried fruit is a good way to give your child a treat while still ensuring that they have whole grains.

Too much salt

Baby foods are not allowed to have added salt, but once you move out of the baby food market, the levels of salt soar. For example Cornflakes, Frosties, Shreddies, Bran Flakes and many other breakfast cereals have very high levels of salt and sugar.

Chicken nuggets, children’s lunchable snacks, pizza, doughnuts and crisps are also often very high in salt.  Adult foods which may be used for children, like cans of spaghetti + baked beans, stock cubes, ready made and instant soups and gravy granules can also have higher levels of salt than is advisable for adults let alone babies.  However, no food by itself is necessarily bad: baked beans, for instance have other nutritional benefits, and as something to have in your cupboard on standby, they are fine.  What you need to think about is the balance of your child’s food throughout the day.


Salt

Too much salt in the diet is not something that you will see harming your child now, or even when they are a teenager.  It leads to high blood pressure and increased risks of heart disease much later on in life.  Heart disease kills thousands of people every year in the UK.

Maximum daily salt intake:                Sodium equivalent

Up to 6 months                                   less than 1g/day          less than          0.4g

7-12 months                                                    1g                                            0.4g

1-3 years                                                         2g                                            0.8g

4-6 years                                                         3g                                            1.2g

7-10 years                                                       5g                                            2.0g

11+ years                                                        6g                                            2.4g

Salt content of various ready made foods (per typical child’s portion)

Chicken nuggets         1.8g                  Pizza                         1.3g

Baked beans              1.7g                  Doughnut                  1.2g

Hamburger                2.0g                  Milk shake                 0.5g

Frosties Cereal          1.5g                  Can of spaghetti                2.3g

Fish Fingers              0.7g                  Pasta Sauce              1.0g

Crisps                       0.6g                  Shepherd’s pie           1.9g

Cheese or ham lunchable pack    2.4g

To judge the quality of the food which you buy, look closely at the Nutrition Information panel which many foods display.  The list on the back will help you to work out if the product has high levels of fat, sugar or salt / sodium.High levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat in food can lead to health problems later on in life.

Processed foods are almost always high in salt, sugar or saturated (or trans) fats and sometimes all three.  By cooking food for your children yourself, you can avoid these.

Your child will copy your eating habits.  If they see you eating fruit and vegetables, drinking water and sitting down for a home cooked meal, rather than snacking on processed foods, they are much more likely to accept the foods which their body needs to develop properly and stay healthy.

Useful websites

Health and Local Food for Families: www.halff.org.uk

The Food Commission:  www.foodcomm.org.uk

Food Standards Agency: www.eatwell.gov.uk