By Registered Dietician, Laura Clark BSc RD PgCert
Before we begin, I should say this blog is written from the perspective of a parent but to be honest if you have a colon you should give it a read!
You would have had to have been stuck in a rather large soft play ball pit recently not to have noticed the headlines about sugar and children’s health. This time the finger of blame fell on cereals with the average bowl of children’s cereals (or should we say those marketed to children) containing around 2 tsp sugar.
As parents I feel we spend every day dodging the sugar gun and on some days we succeed more than others. Not choosing an obviously sugary cereal seems an easier win, but it’s still everywhere else!! Birthday parties for example – it’s the highlight of the year when you’re 6. My daughter has already requested ‘lots of sweets’ because in her eyes this gives her serious street cred.
But let’s face it, we’re not getting our calculators out and totting up how many grams they’ve had – have they gone over their recommended 5 teaspoons today? Oh no, they have! #mummyfail! On their 7th birthday we don’t acknowledge that they can now indulge in another 6g of it a day. After all it’s never a good idea to give ammunition to an older child that they’ve got one over their younger sibling. And then there are practicalities – parent rule number one – never give one thing to one child and something different to child number 2 – they will mark it down in their little black book under the NOT FAIR column and hold it against you for life.
But as sugar soaks up the attention its lesser famous mate ‘fibre’ is shouting in the wings trying to get noticed. Fibre is the food for our insides – you may think you’re only feeding 1, 2, 3, or maybe 4 children at dinner – but you’re actually feeding 100 trillion other dinner guests in the form of bacteria and the good news is when they whinge you can’t hear them!
However, just because their voice isn’t loud enough, it doesn’t mean they should be ignored! We can’t live without them after all and if we feed them well it will pay off for our children’s insides. Healthy bowels means healthy poo, good immunity and protection of their long term health! Sadly our diets today are in danger of creating whingey bacteria though… we don’t meet fibre requirements, we don’t have enough diversity and we eat too much of the stuff that the good bacteria can’t eat – effectively killing them off and narrowing the diversity of our dining companions.
Interestingly Gorilla’s eat a plant based diet with most of their energy needs coming from the by-products of a bacteria feeding frenzy! And they’re huge! Luckily I’m not trying to feed gorillas – more like chimpanzees as documented in another blog of mine – the joys of feeding a 3 year old.
And so to my compromise – let’s give our children’s bacteria the best 6th birthday party ever through paying attention to the fibre we’re giving them and fretting less about the sugar!
* Keep the sugar in context – enable them to feel satisfied and chuffed with appropriately sized treats.
* Oats – always a winner and a great source of fibre – porridge, porridge fingers, healthy flapjacks made with fruit to decrease added sugar, oats sneaked into pancakes, on top of lower sugar crumbles – loads of options. Don’t fear carbs.
* Pulses and lentils – versatile because they tend to take on the flavours of the dish. My personal favourite dishes are moroccon chicken with chickpeas, chilli with kidney beans, lentil bolognaise and red lentil and sausage stew but I’m sure Vicki has some ideas!
* Vegetables – keep going, keeping offering, keep variety, keep sane.
* Wholegrains – wholemeal bread is an easy one. But why not also try wholemeal flours or alternatives such as buckwheat or gram flour in baking – whether it be pancakes, or pizza bases the possibilities are endless. It’s best not to overdo fibre at all meals – it can be filling and you don’t want it to reduce appetite – throwing a little bit in with the non- wholegrain stuff may also potentially be more accepted! Wholewheat couscous or pasta are good examples of when this works well.
* And as for the breakfast cereal debate – I’m not adverse to a bit of sugar if it enables me to get a shed load of fibre in – our top fav is Weetabix Crunchy Bran!
* Fermented foods – I haven’t been brave enough and they can be high in salt so you would need to watch portion size but if you think your children are game to try foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut or kefir milk then go for it! Bacteria love them!
* Leeks, garlic, artichokes, apples and yoghurt are on also on bacteria’s ideal menu. Red wine is too so you can feed your own bacteria at the same time!
A few points to note:
Large volumes of fibre in the first couple of years of life are not wise – tiny tummies have high energy requirements relative to their size for rapid growth and development – too much fibre can fill them prematurely. Fibre won’t counteract the issues with sugar and teeth so keep on brushing and always give plenty of water with sugary treats including dried fruit snacks so they don’t get too cosy with your child’s tooth enamel!
I have to say though on reflection that bacterial 6th birthday parties are far less stressful than human ones to get right and trust me they will be very grateful.
P.S. You can see me advising the time travelling Robshaw family on home fermenting on the hugely popular Further Back in Time for Dinner – BBC2 9pm on the 28th Feb (episode 6 of the series).
If you want to see me or any other registered dietitians for advice check out www.freelancedietitians.org.
Read more of Laura’s posts here: How to Lose Weight as a Busy Mama, Food Assumptions and How They Affect Their Children, and Confessions of a Dietitian Mum: What I Actually Feed My Children.
Photo © Laura Clark.