Thursday 22 March 2018

Children's bad eating habits were just 'allowed to happen'

Ruth Charles: Paediatric Dietitian with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute

Yale student Frances Chan refused to force feed herself with junk food to prove she wasn't suffering from an eating disorder
Yale student Frances Chan refused to force feed herself with junk food to prove she wasn't suffering from an eating disorder

Ailin Quinlan

Ruth Charles uses a striking phrase when she discusses the origins of childhood obesity; "things that have been allowed to happen."

Things that have been allowed to happen, she explains, are usually small; little bad habits that can begin from the moment a child is born.

So for example, putting an extra scoop of formula, some baby rice or a crushed rusk into the bottle of a wakeful, formula-fed child may help your child sleep more soundly – but it also means you're giving your child extra calories that he or she doesn't need and potentially predisposing them, both psychologically and physically, to weight gain and a life-time of over-eating.

That's partly because the more calories a child is fed, the heavier the child will be.

"You're also stretching the child's stomach so that, very quickly it takes more to fill it," explains Charles.

You're also habituating the child to not feeling satisfied until it has eaten too much.

"If a child is used to that feeling they won't feel satisfied until they feel stuffed."

And then there's weaning – evidence shows that Irish weaning practices often tend to rely on commercial salty snacks or sweetened sugary drinks, she says.

"You'll notice toddlers in buggies carrying a packet of soft, crisp-type snacks or a carton of juice. That is all extra calories. These snacks are high in sugar, salt and fat," she says.

Something has also been allowed to happen to the traditional family mealtime as time-poor parents are often not cooking or eating with their children.

"Traditional routines have changed," says Charles, pointing to the fact that many children now eat with other children in a childcare setting, or on their own before bed.

"They may not see food being prepared from raw materials. I meet a lot of children who don't know where their food comes from. They see food coming out of a box or a packet.

"If you ask them where beef comes from they'll say 'the shop' or 'a packet'.

"You have children growing up who don't understand the basics of cooking."

It's another thing that's just allowed to happen – and as children are creatures of habit, their palates can become so reliant on processed foods that they won't want to eat anything else.

Remember, says Charles, children learn from the adult behaviour that goes on around them.

If your child is not exposed to shopping for and cooking raw materials in a traditional family environment where the food is eaten by the family together, they won't sit down and eat normally.


* Make up baby formula according to instructions – don't add anything to a child's bottle to make it sleep better.

* Encourage your child to drink milk or water and avoid sugary, salty snacks.

* Persist in encouraging children to eat fruit and vegetables. The whole family has to eat them too.

* It's a good idea for school and parents in consultation, to develop a healthy lunch policy to discourage the purchase of fast foods at both primary and second level.

* Start some basic cooking with your child – scrambled egg, omelettes, homemade soup or smoothies, and give them comfort food like homemade shepherd's pie or curry.

* Encourage teenagers to stay with their GAA or other sports club. Enjoy family walks and encourage them to do any kind of physical activity they enjoy.

* If you feel your child has a weight issue, says Charles, he or she probably has.

Visit for information.

* Many parents worry that talking to a child about their weight will bring on an eating disorder.

"If you are to talk about weight, you talk about the topic in terms of the whole family as a group changing their lifestyle or food," says Charles.

  • Visit for more advice on how best to broach this sensitive subject with your child.

Irish Independent

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