Tuesday 24 April 2018

Think of food as fuel to avoid childhood obesity

Simple portion measuring and good food choices can keep children trim, writes Rozanne Stevens

Rozanne Stevens
Rozanne Stevens

Rozanne Stevens

As a nation, I think we have lost touch with food and the place it has in our lives. Of course it is a great way to socialise, it can be wonderfully entertaining but eating shouldn't become a recreation.

Food is fuel for our bodies. Delicious, thoroughly enjoyable, but still fuel. We need to educate ourselves on what and how much we should be eating. And rethink the idea that we have to clear our plate at every meal and rather stop eating when we are full.

The following is a summary of the daily dietary requirements that children need. And very importantly, what portion sizes should look like. Little people need far smaller servings, you're not doing them any favours by feeding them adult sized portions. I find it very helpful to use appropriately sized plates and cutlery, and also using the right sized serving spoons, cup measures and weighing scales if necessary to learn what the correct portions should look like.

These recommendations are based on the Irish Food Pyramid and is arranged in descending order according to the number of recommended daily servings. Log onto www.safefood.eu for a downloadable file with photos of servings sizes.

Breads, Cereals, Potatoes, Pasta and Rice

Children 2-3: 3 servings

Children 4-8: 4-5 servings

Boys 9-13: 6 servings

Girls 9-13: 5 servings

These carbohydrate rich foods are the best energy providers for your body, so the more active you are the more you need, so these are a guideline.

The above recommendations are based on a child getting less than 30 minutes of exercise a day, which is unfortunately reflective of many children in Western society. The more activity your child does, the more carbohydrate rich foods you can include.

Two very important things to remember with starchy foods are that at least half of the servings should be unprocessed and 'whole grain' options and that the serving sizes need to be appropriate.

The word 'wholegrain' has been hijacked by some marketing campaigns but in essence means 'brown', unprocessed starchy foods. Foods like brown bread, oats porridge, whole wheat pasta, brown rice and potatoes with the skin on are all excellent choices. Much higher in fibre, B vitamins and other nutrients with a nuttier, wholesome texture and flavour.

These foods also break down much slower into glucose in the bloodstream so will provide a steady stream of energy. If your child is overweight, get rid of all sugary, 'white' processed carbohydrates. They are calorie rich but nutrient-poor options.

Portion size is absolutely key as many of these foods are manufactured and packaged in serving sizes that are much larger than what you need. It is probably the most difficult food group to re-educate yourself about portion sizes.

For example, a sandwich with two slices of bread counts as two servings. Other choices like one pitta pocket, one tortilla wrap, one small bagel, one small scone and one small French bread roll count as two servings.

Examples of one serving size:

* 1 slice of brown sliced bread or wholegrain soda bread l 2-3 crackers or crispbreads

* 4 dessert spoons flake type high fibre breakfast cereal, without sugar, honey or chocolate coating

* 3 dessert spoons dry porridge oats

* 2 breakfast cereal wheat or oat biscuits

* 3 dessert spoons muesli, without sugar or honey coating

* 1 medium or 2 small potatoes

* 2 dessert spoons of mashed potatoes

* 3 dessert spoons or 1/2 cup boiled pasta, rice, noodles (25g dry weight)

* 1 cup sweet potato


Children 2-3 1 cup

Children 4-8: 1.5 cups

Boys 9-13: 1.5 cups

Girls 9-13: 1.5 cups

Getting children to eat enough fruits and vegetables seems to be an ongoing battle for parents. This is also the biggest area of food waste with parents filling up the fruit bowl and salad drawer each week and most of it left uneaten.

In my experience, children like fruits that come in handy portions and are easy to eat.

At this time of year, mandarins and clementines, known as 'easy peeler' citrus fruit are juicy and sweet and the perfect size. I also lightly stew frozen berries, or chopped apples and pears with cinnamon, vanilla or orange for natural sweetness. These homemade fruit purees are delicious served with breakfast porridge or yogurt.

Eat a variety of coloured fruit and vegetables – green, yellow, orange, red and purple in order to benefit from the variety of vitamins and minerals provided by each colour group. Include a vitamin C rich fruit each day such as an orange or orange juice, strawberries or blackberries. Count fruit juice and smoothies as only one serving each day as they may be low in fibre.

One serving of fruit is:

* 1 medium apple, orange, banana, pear or similar size fruit

* 2 small fruits – plums, kiwis or similar size fruit

* 10-12 berries, grapes or cherries

½ a grapefruit

* 1 heaped dessertspoon of raisins or sultanas

* 4 dessert spoons of cooked fresh fruit, fruit tinned in own juice or frozen fruit


Children 2-3: 1 cup

Children 4-8: 1.5 cups

Boys 9-13: 2.5 cups

Girls 9-13: 2 cups

When dishing up a meal, half the plate should consist of vegetables, a quarter protein foods and a quarter carbohydrate foods. In my experience many children who do not enjoy cooked vegetables actually prefer raw, lightly steamed or stir fried vegetables.

One serving of vegetable is:

* four dessert spoons of cooked vegetables – fresh or frozen

* a bowl of salad – lettuce, tomato, cucumber

* a bowl of homemade vegetable soup

* 1 small corn on the cob or four heaped dessert spoon of sweetcorn

* a small glass (100ml) of unsweetened fruit juice or a smoothie made only from fruit or vegetables.

Milk, yogurt and cheese

Children 2-3: 2 servings

Children 4-8: 2 servings

Boys 9-13: 3 servings

Girls 9-13: 3 servings

Milk, yogurt and cheese provide calcium needed for healthy bones and teeth at all ages, but especially during the during crucial developmental years up to age 20. When choosing dairy foods, have milk and yogurt more often than cheese, as it is high in saturated fat.

Remember that skimmed milk is not suitable for children under five and low fat milk is not suitable for children under two.

If dairy products have to be avoided, have calcium and vitamin D enriched soya products. Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium better, and unfortunately, due to the Irish climate, many people are deficient in Vitamin D. Consult your doctor who can do a simple blood test and prescribe a supplement in this case.

One serving of dairy is:

* 1 large glass (200ml) low fat or low fat fortified milk

* 1 large glass (200ml) calcium enriched Soya milk

* 1 small carton yogurt (125ml)

* 1 yogurt drink (200ml)

* 1 small carton fromage frais

* 25g/1oz (matchbox size piece) of low fat cheddar or semi-soft cheese

* 50g/2oz low fat soft cheese

* 2 processed cheese triangles

* 75g/3oz cottage cheese

Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts

This group consists of protein rich foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, beans, fish and soy products.

It is important to eat appropriate size servings and also a variety of protein rich foods, not just meat. Choose any two servings per day. As children hit adolescence, they will require more servings from this group of foods.

Choose lean meat, trim excess fat from meat and remove skin from poultry to reduce saturated fat. Limit processed meats such as bacon or ham, as these are usually high in fat and salt.

You do not need large amounts of meat and poultry to satisfy your nutritional needs as your body can only utilise a small amount of protein at a time.

Fish has a multitude of health benefits and should ideally be served at least twice a week, and one serving should be an oily fish such as salmon or mackerel.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should limit their intake of tuna due to the potential risks of mercury present in the fish.

Iron rich foods such as red meat and egg yolks are important for children, teenagers and women.

A good tip is to have a vitamin C food or drink (such as orange juice) in the same meal with the iron-rich food to increase the amount of iron you absorb.

Other good sources of protein are beans and peas when eaten with wholegrain breads, rice or pasta.

They are also fat-free. If you are a vegetarian and get your protein regularly from cheese, always choose lower fat cheeses.

One serving is:

* 50-75g cooked lean beef, pork, lamb, lean mince, chicken (This is about 100g/4oz of raw meat or poultry and is about the size of a pack of cards)

* 100g cooked oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) or white fish (cod, haddock, plaice)

* 2 eggs – limit to 7 eggs a week

* 100g soya or tofu

* 125g hummus

* 6 dessert spoon of peas, beans (includes baked beans) or lentils

* 40g unsalted nuts or peanut butter or seeds

* 100-150g cooked meat or

* 200g fish is equal to 2 servings – this is about the width and depth of the palm of your hand.

Fats and Oils

Healthy oils rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids are important for healthy development in children.

They are still a calorie-dense food so should be limited to two to three teaspoons a day.

Get into the habit of spreading a very thin layer of low fat spread or butter on bread and using salad dressings and mayonnaise sparingly.


The concept of regular food treats have crept into our daily lives with many families having 'treat drawers' and 'fun sized' chocolates and crisps.

I grew up with a proper dessert after Sunday dinner and sweets on a Friday.

That's just the way it was, no discussion. Today, I do like chocolates, desserts and home baking but I haven't had sweets in over 20 years.

Thanks to my parents who fed me real food, I never developed a taste for fake flavoured jellies, sweets and candies.

Irish Independent

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