independent

Monday 21 April 2014

I saw my kids turn into sweet-seeking missiles

Our love affair with sugar is a habit that we must break for the sake of our children

Kathy Donaghy, pictured here with her two children, Oirghiall (2) and Dallan (5), has resolved to fill her shopping trolley with only healthy fare as her family attempts to break their addiction to sugary snacks. Photo by Richard Curran

Christmas might be over weeks ago but I'm still dealing with the sugar hangover and trying to get two small children back on the straight and narrow after a festive sugar frenzy.

All it took was the rustle of a biscuit wrapper to bring my two-year-old and five-year-old running into the kitchen demanding a chocolate biscuit recently. Ears trained for rumblings of something sugary being unwrapped and they were like sweet-seeking missiles.

In a scene oddly reminiscent of The Walking Dead, they proceeded to try to prise the aforementioned biscuit out of my hand. I wondered if they'd actually eat hand and all to get to it before I realised things had spiralled completely out of control on the chocolate and sweets front.

To be honest it wasn't just the kids. We had all become a bit more sugar dependent over Christmas - myself included. Why is it that in December it seems perfectly acceptable to have a mince pie with your cup of tea at 11am when you wouldn't dream of doing this at any other time of year?

But now, well into January, I was finding my children - who do get occasional treats - were whining for treats and chocolates like addicts at every opportunity. The lunches and dinners I cooked were seen as side dishes to the main event that would come after - the treat. I was also craving sweet foods in a way I normally didn't. I realised that over Christmas, our reasonably healthy routine had hit the scrap heap and it was time for action.

That was when I decided to get rid of all the sweet treats left over from Christmas - enough to fill a small wheelie bin. If we were going to do this, we were going to do it cold turkey.

"Chocolate and biscuits are now the enemy," I told my husband, only half in jest. It wasn't just me either. Many parents I spoke to were having the same problem trying to get back to a normal healthy eating regime after Christmas.

There's no doubt sugar is addictive. The look in my children's eyes as they went straight for the biscuit told me that. Not for nothing is sugar being labelled the new tobacco in health circles. And while there's obviously sugar in biscuits and buns, there's also lots of sneaky sugar packed into places where you don't expect it such as the breakfast cereals aimed at kids.

Everywhere you look, no-sugar diets are popping up heralding the benefits of going sugar-free. And while I'm not quite ready to do a Gwyneth Paltrow-style total sugar elimination, these people must be onto something.

The average person is now consuming about 1.5lb of sugar every week. It is a frightening amount of the stuff. Now the World Health Organization is preparing to update its recommendation that sugar should not account for more than 10pc of the calories in our diet. However, a number of experts continue to point out that this is too high in the context of rising obesity.

The statistics in relation to childhood obesity in this country are stark. One-in-five Irish children is considered obese. While there are many causes, including more sedentary lifestyles today, consuming too many calories in sweet treats and drinks is causing huge problems.

Fiona Ward, acting dietitian manager at Temple Street Children's Hospital in Dublin, says parents need to take back some of the control of what their children are eating. She adds that a survey on food consumption in Ireland conducted in 2001 showed that, for children, 24pc of food was consumed outside the home.

However, this left 76pc of food consumed in the home and parents should remember they have control over what's being eaten there.

She explains that a child aged one needs around 760 calories a day and should only be having 20g of sugar per day. When you consider that a small bar of chocolate contains 10g of sugar, it's not hard to see that many children are overshooting on the amount they are taking in every day.

She says for a small child, a good diet would be to have a cereal like Ready Brek or Weetabix for breakfast, a piece of fruit as a snack, a sandwich for lunch with a yogurt snack in the afternoon. Dinner, for example, should have meat and vegetables and potatoes with a drink of milk before bed.

For older children, say a 10-year-old, who needs about 2,000 calories a day, 50g of sugar is the recommended daily intake.

When you consider that some fizzy drinks like those marketed for sporting activities contain about 30g of sugar per 500ml serving, it's easy to see just how easily children can take in way more sugar per day than they should.

Ward admits that it's not always easy for parents to make healthy decisions but a good rule of thumb is to go for foods that are less processed.

When it comes to drinks, she says water should be the choice for children between meals while servings of milk are also important for their bone and teeth development.

One small glass of fruit juice, for example, orange juice at breakfast is okay, but is not something that should be drunk at other times of the day.

As for fizzy drinks, she says they should be avoided and are not recommended for children at all.

Ward says that eating sweet treats is habit-forming and the entire family must be involved in any approach to change it.

A big problem is that children today are not active enough to warrant additional treats, she says.

She points out treats should only be given occasionally, at the weekend - certainly not every day.

With 24pc of four-year-olds in this country now overweight, it is time we got to grips with our sugar intake.

At Temple Street Children's Hospital, they are examing children as young as 12 with cardio-vascular problems. They see obese children with mobility problems and problems with their knees and hips.

Changing our attitudes to sugar is going to take a massive mind shift. Our love affair with sugar is a long and complicated one. We celebrate with cake, console ourselves with chocolate, indulge ourselves with ice-cream and treat ourselves with cupcakes.

However, I'm fast coming around to the notion that a once a day treat is no longer a viable option for my kids. The withdrawal will be painful, I'm sure of it.

Yes, they're still high in sugar but I'm making simple changes like giving a small box of raisins as a treat instead of a biscuit. If they ask for something between meals, they are getting a cracker or a breadstick. They can have something from the fruit bowl whenever they want.

I'm only giving water with meals and have cut the fruit juice to two glasses a day, one with breakfast.

As Fiona Ward says, if treats are not in the house, you can't give them.

So fewer sweet things will be going in my shopping trolley from now on although I still can't have a cup of tea without at least a digestive biscuit.

With a big effort, I have noticed - even in the past few days - that the calls for treats have eased. I'm saying "no" more often too. It's a long road but hopefully a healthier one.

What's in your food

Just how much sugar is in what you eat per 100g? (teaspoon=4g)

Porridge Oats 1.3g

Ready Brek 1.0g

Weetabix 4.4g

Shreddies 14.9g

Bran Flakes 18.3g

Coco Pops 42g

Milk 5g

Apple/orange juice 9.5g

Fizzy drink 10g

Cream cracker 1.4g

Digestive 13.6g

Chocolate biscuit 28.5g

Milk chocolate 56.9g

Petits Filous 12.2g

Organic Glenisk 10g

Muller Mini Corner 11.3g

Irish Independent

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