Nutrition and fitness consultant Bernadette Abraham on how to instil good food choices from a young age
I have four children – two boys and two girls, between the ages of 4 and 10. They all go to school, participate in after-school sports and activities, play with friends and enjoy birthday parties and weekend outings. And wherever they go, the world rains sugar on them.
It’s the sweets bowl at the hair salon, the birthday cake and juice in class, the gum from the waiter, the sugar-laden cereals offered at camp, the sweets-filled piñata and (not so) goody bags from birthday parties, ice cream from auntie, the cookie that comes with Dad’s coffee, the doughnut fund-raiser at school, the free treats being given out at mall activation stands – the list goes on and on. Why are my kids being offered sugar on a regular, if not daily basis, everywhere they go?
Even more frustrating are the responses from others every time I speak up. I get the: “it’s OK once in a while”, or “they’re just kids” or, my all-time favourite, “we ate this stuff as kids and we’re all OK”.
I beg to differ. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions. Children are beginning to show signs of cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and cholesterol. And the number of children being diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes has risen significantly in the past decade. Are we really raising a generation that is going to be OK?
A sugary treat is no longer the exception but rather the rule. And somehow over the years, society has normalised the incessant amount of junk food and sugar given to children. If only it were just once in a while or even in moderation.
What’s worse is that not so long ago, this wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion. Yet, today, speaking up about it can spark a debate and even offend others because of the way sugar has ingrained itself into the culture. And anyone who questions it is labelled unreasonable.
Let’s be clear. It isn’t really sugar that is the problem, but rather the exorbitant amount that has become the foundation of a child’s diet today.
As parents, we do our best to teach our children to make good food choices, but when they’re still young and cannot resist the temptations all around them, how strict or lenient should we be?
If a child is not allowed to have sweet treats and soda at home, will they rebel and want it even more when they grow up? Or would the omission of sweets at home have a positive effect and lead to healthy adults who make healthy food choices?
Dr Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist from Dubai’s Human Relations Institute & Clinics, agrees with these legitimate questions and concerns and says it is important to realise that moderation can work for some, but others may react negatively to such restrictions.
According to Dr Hamden, 68 per cent of the population will have no problems. They take sugar when it is available and won’t ask for it when it is not available. And children don’t necessarily ask for sweets every day unless it is available every day. So he advises to swap the sweets bowl on the kitchen table with a bowl of fruits and vegetables instead.
Dr Hamden also cites a study conducted in the early 80s at a children’s hospital in Washington DC that analysed the food choices made by children between the ages of 8 and 10 years who were being hospitalised. The nutritionists and dietitians asked for permission from the parents to allow the children to eat anything they wanted, any time they wanted it, without any limitations or boundaries.
At first, the children ordered the worst of junk foods – hot dogs, fries, sodas, sweets – anything they wanted. It was a child’s dream. However, within 36 hours, the same children began asking for healthier options of their own free will – greens, potatoes, eggs, steak, fruits, etc. The study concluded that our bodies have a natural balance and that we need to listen to that balance to know what it needs.
However, Dr Hamden does caution parents about what they feed their children in the first six months to a year of life, because it could affect them for the rest of their life, and dangerously so. He recommends avoiding processed foods, including sugar, especially during the early stages of life.
Setting boundaries, limiting the amount of sweets at home and teaching our children to make healthy food choices outside of the home is ultimately a parent’s responsibility. But wouldn’t it be nice if society played a role and helped level the playing field a bit more?
Here are a few ideas that could be implemented:
Tax sugar. And maybe even processed foods with added sugar. Berkeley, California, became the first city in the United States to pass a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, including sodas, sweetened teas, sugary juices and energy drinks. Mexico, which implemented a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks as a way to offset the economic costs of diabetes and obesity, has reduced the consumption of such beverages. If the UAE adopted such a tax, the money generated could help subsidise local, organic farming to make organic food more affordable, and fund community-based health initiatives and campaigns to promote better health and nutrition across the country.
Stop marketing junk food and sugar to children, especially at sporting and school events. The food industry needs to be better controlled and regulated and there needs to be a ban on inappropriate advertising, much like the tobacco advertising ban that exists in many countries, including the UAE.
Remove confectionery from grocery store checkout lines. The UK’s largest retailer, Tesco, banned sweets and chocolates from its store checkouts. Supermarkets can easily implement a “sweets-free” lane for families shopping with young kids.
Set a nationwide school nutrition policy. Many schools are strictly and successfully nut-free, even though nuts are dangerous to just a small number of children. The same rules should apply to sweets, sweetened beverages and junk food. Schools need to be supporting parents and helping reinforce healthy habits. We have the power to help shape a healthier future for our children and it starts with better choices, local action and political advocacy. Together we have the collective power to create change.