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Reducing discretionary foods

The variety of snack foods and drinks for children is more diverse than ever before.

In your mind, walk through your local supermarket and think of the number of snacks and drinks available. The number and variety are overwhelming! It is very difficult to know which snacks and drinks are healthy. TV advertising and packaging may also lead you to believe that certain snacks and drinks are healthy for your child. However, the truth is that many are high in saturated fat and sugar.

Reducing fat/saturated fat

Young children today consume well above the recommended amount of foods high in saturated fat or other unhealthy fats known as ‘trans’ fat. Over a lifetime, the consumption of too much of these unhealthy fats can be harmful. Heart disease, some types of cancer, obesity and type 2 diabetes can result from many years of excess saturated fat consumption. Foods such as fatty meats, butter, dripping, lard, coconut and certain vegetable oils (such as palm oil) are high in saturated fat. Unsaturated fats should be included in our regular eating patterns as they are beneficial nutrients that can help to reduce our risk of heart disease. Foods that contain unsaturated fats include:

  • Seeds
  • Some oils (such as olive or canola/rapeseed oil)
  • Olives
  • Avocados
  • Nuts (*Note that whole nuts should be avoided until children are at least 3 as they can be a choking hazard)
  • Smooth nut pastes
  • Fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines)

Look out for hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in ingredients lists as these products contain trans fats. Trans fats are commonly used in foods such as chips/crisps, cakes, biscuits/cookies and pies.

Reducing sugar

Some foods contain natural sugar (like fruit, vegetables and milk) and these are very healthy foods that we should include in our eating patterns, but a young child’s food intake now includes many foods and drinks which contain added sugar. Too much of this added sugar puts children at risk of tooth decay and unhealthy weight gain. One way to keep your eye on how much sugar your child has is to limit obvious sources like:

  • Sugary drinks
  • Biscuits
  • Cakes
  • Chocolate
  • Sweets / candy
  • Jam
  • Honey
  • Syrups

Sugar can be sneaky and can be in foods we might not immediately think of as ‘unhealthy’. Food products and recipes are also increasingly using ingredients, such as the following, to make them sound healthier. However, these ingredients are either different types of sugar or are high in sugar:

  • Maple syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Coconut sugar
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Raw sugar
  • Agave nectar
  • Fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate

New guidelines from the World Health Organisation state that ‘free’ sugar should be limited to 10% of total energy intake for children and adults. However, food labels in many countries are not required to list ‘free’ sugar, so it is difficult to determine. Checking the ingredients list for types of sugar is the best way to look for these sneaky sugars.

Reducing salt / sodium

Young children are consuming more salt than they need. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease in later life. Because salt can increase thirst, salt intake can indirectly contribute to obesity if children use sugary drinks to quench their thirst. Foods that have a high content of salt include:

  • Processed meat
  • Some types of cheese
  • Processed foods
  • Takeaway / fast foods
  • Breads
  • Cereals

While some of these foods are healthy and should be included in a healthy eating pattern, low salt/sodium varieties should be chosen where available.

Healthy Snacks

Young children should have snacks a couple of times a day (e.g. morning tea and afternoon tea). So it’s good to know what the best snacks to offer are. Think of snacks as mini meals and choose foods that come from one of the major food groups. As it is difficult to consume enough vegetables at dinner time, it is a great idea to try to include vegetables as snacks throughout the day. Other snacks might include yoghurt or cheese, wholegrain cereal/bread, fruit, meat or meat alternatives (e.g. nut paste or legumes).

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This article is from the free online course:

Preventing Childhood Obesity: an Early Start to Healthy Living

University of Wollongong

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