So comes the million-dollar question: What is healthy eating?
Society has now accepted that being on diets are normal to achieve that perfect body. There are unlimited messages from social media, friends, and articles about what food is good, or what is healthy for you. It is not surprising for me to see families and children being confused about what they should or should not eat.
Let me start off with my top 5 red flags of what is NOT normal / healthy eating:
- Avoiding whole food groups
- Having the feeling of guilt when it comes to eating
- Not knowing how or when to start or stop eating
- Not able to enjoy meals out or meals related to spontaneous eating
- Fixated on being a certain weight or what the numbers on the scales say about you
1. Avoiding whole food groups
Avoiding whole food groups is my number one red flag as it can put a person at risk of nutritional deficiency. From a dietitian point of view, eliminating a food group completely can have detrimental effects on children. Here’s a summary on the 5 main food groups, and a brief summary as to why they are important for health:
- Breads & cereals: Main source of fuel for the body in the form of carbohydrates. Wholegrain variety can be a good source of fibre, vitamins and antioxidants over refined grains.
- Fruits: Important source of fibre and vitamins, especially vitamin C. Also provide a good source of carbohydrate to fuel the body.
- Vegetables and legumes / beans: Good source of a variety of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Having a variety of vegetables can help reduce risk of some cancers, heart diseases and help prevent rapid weight gain.
- Meat & meat alternative: Important source of protein, iron and zinc. Protein is important for building, maintaining and repairing our body tissues. Vitamin B12 is found ONLY in animal-based products, so vegans should have their vitamin B12 checked and supplemented if low.
- Dairy & dairy alternative: Good source of protein and an essential source of calcium. Important for strong bones and teeth especially in growing children.
I encourage parents to talk about food as fuel or energy for your body. The 5 main food groups above are essential in our diet and we should have them regularly on a daily basis. To find out more about the main 5 food groups, check out the Eat for Health website.
2. Having the feeling of guilt when it comes to eating
Food should be enjoyed in moderation, and I strongly discourage labelling food as good/bad, or healthy/unhealthy. Children should be enjoying a variety of food and rather than feeling guilty when it comes to eating a certain “bad” food. This can be tricky as lots of adults and parents label food as well.
Teaching your child on how to eat as according to their hunger cues is an important part of healthy, normal eating (see point number 3).
All foods can (and should) be enjoyed in moderation. Only actively avoid a certain food when that food is dangerous to the health of your child. For an example: a child who has peanut allergy warrants the need to actively avoid peanuts in that child’s diet.
3. Not knowing how or when to start or stop eating
When should we eat is another common question I get from families. Should my child have 3 set meal times? Should they eat whenever a food is offered?
In a way, yes, we should eat according to a set meal time to discourage children from skipping meals. If your child is still young, I encourage parents to decide when and what they would like the child to eat, and the child to decide how much they would eat. This is important for the young child to learn about their hunger cues, and to stop eating when they are full. Children should have 3 main meals and 2-3 snacks in a day. Try not to use food as a way to coax children to eat food that they don’t like, as it can encourage children to eat more even though they are full. This can lead to over-eating, which can cause rapid weight gain in children.
Some older children or teenagers can have irregular meal times. This may not be ideal as they can sometimes ignore their hunger cues as they are too busy with other stuff, such as hanging out with friends. Initially, it may be worthwhile to remind them to have something to eat every 4 hours. This helps to regulate their hunger/satiety cues, and with time, they should be eating when they are hungry, and stop eating when they are full.
For those who eat out of stress, boredom, or those who eat to regulate their emotions, I strongly suggest working out on mindful eating strategies (which will be covered next week ??) which can be found here:
4. Not able to enjoy meals out or meals related to spontaneous eating
Part of normal, healthy eating is to be able to be spontaneous when it comes to eating. Your child should be able to enjoy having meals out with friends or family. If your child is anxious about eating out, try to work out what is bothering them. Does your child have a certain food ritual, such as “my food cannot have any sauces as they are bad for me”? Are they avoiding a certain food / food group?
Again, the key here is to teach your child that all food can, and should be enjoyed in moderation (see point number 2).
A classic example for this is: “I have to be exactly 63kg because XXX says so”, or “my friend YYY is 39kg, and I want to be at his / her weight”. Most people, including children can work out that one can control their weight by controlling what they eat. This can then spiral into an unhealthy obsession of what and how much one can or should eat to get to this “ideal” weight. This unhealthy obsession can then lead to dieting, obsession with food, and negative body image, which can be difficult to manage especially if left unmanaged.
Rather than to focus on what food will do to the numbers on the scales, try to encourage the child to focus on other positive aspects of themselves. A good way to talk about food is to talk about food groups and why variety is important to provide different macronutrients and micronutrients to nourish the body. For a growing child, it is important NOT to discuss about weight loss. If you are concerned about your child’s weight, talk to a health professional such as your GP, paediatrician, or you can to talk about how to manage your child’s weight.
Shu-Lin Pook is a Paediatric Dietitian at Hopscotch & Harmony. She supports the nutritional needs for children, from infancy through adolescence. She understands that management of complex food allergies/food intolerances can often be difficult, and also works with young people who have prior negative feeding experiences, autism, or poor/negative body image.