by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee
Children in England are starting their days fuelled by more than half their recommended daily intake of sugar, it was revealed earlier this month (See my response to the story live on BBC One’s Breakfast Show).
In the report, Public Health England (PHE) announced that the average child in England consumes up to three cubes-worth of sugar at breakfast.
The maximum daily limit for children aged 4-6 is five cubes. (For children aged 7-10, the limit is six cubes). To be clear, PHE is not recommending children eat all five cubes-worth, but that they should consume no more than this.
However, if a child is getting more than half that amount of sugar in his first meal of the day, its highly likely he’ll have far exceeded this amount before his head hits the pillow at night.
It starts with the parents
Even more worrying, in my opinion, is that of the parents surveyed, 84 per cent considered their child’s breakfast to be healthy.
It is clear from these findings, as well as my 15 years experience as a doctor, that people are confused. The public needs better education around healthy food choices.
The current lack of awareness around what constitutes a healthy breakfast means it’s unlikely we’ll reverse the obesity epidemic unless this changes. After all, overweight kids are more likely to become overweight adults. And overweight adults are more likely to suffer from premature ill health.
But it’s easy to see why there is confusion. We all know that biscuits, cakes and sweets contain sugar but are less aware of the high sugar content of most breakfast foods.
Many breakfast options have for years been considered ‘healthy’, such as highly processed, pasturised juices devoid of most nutrients, and wholesome-sounding cereals laden with sugars and sweeteners, masquerading as healthy because they’re ‘fortified’ with artificial added vitamins, which you’d get anyway if you ate a healthy diet.
So, anything that can be done to educate and empower parents gets my vote.
No need for added sugar
There is even confusion as to which types of sugar are good or bad. To be clear, Public Health England is concerned about our intake of ‘free sugars’ – the ones added to food by manufacturers, chefs and even ourselves during cooking or at the dinner table. The term ‘free sugars’ also includes the natural sugars present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.
PHE is not concerned about naturally occurring sugars in fruit and vegetables, lactose, which is the type of sugar in milk. There really is no need for us to have any added sugar at all – or sweeteners, for that matter, which may also lead to obesity by disrupting the gut microbiome.
There’s also a common misconception that we need lots of sugar for energy, for example it will help fuel our exercise sessions, or that kids need it to keep them going all day. The fact is none of us need any added sugars as a healthy diet including fruit and veg will provide sufficient amounts.
Helping your child stay healthy
I like to talk directly to children to help educate them around food. They understand more than we give them credit for. I have often found that when children know what to eat, it results in their parents eating better too. Why not discuss healthy eating with your kids? Enable them to be part of the conversation.
Depriving or removing beloved foods can often cause problems. I would instead focus on filling up your cupboards with healthy foods and snacks, rather than simply taking something away. That way it feels less like deprivation.
In my household, we have overhauled our eating habits over the past few years. We eat foods as close to their natural, unprocessed state as possible, even for breakfast – examples include scrambled eggs with some avocado or even heating up leftovers from the night before e.g. chicken, sweet potatoes and broccoli.
Here are my top tips for keeping your kids healthy and avoiding weight gain (not to mention avoiding high dentist bills!).
- Control the environment you can control – don’t bring juices and sugary cereals into the house. There is enough temptation out there, so while at home, keep things as healthy as possible.
- Focus on the delicious, healthy choices they are having instead of what they might be missing out on. Get them excited about having eggs for breakfast.
- Ask your children how they feel at school after having a non-sugary breakfast compared to a sugary one. They will often tell you that their energy levels, mood and concentration were much better when they didn’t have a bowl of something sugary. This will inspire them to continue eating in the new healthier way.
- Try and get two of your five a day at breakfast. This can be incredibly motivating for both parent and child – and also has the added benefit of ‘crowding out’ unhealthy option. Stewed apples can be very tasty on cold, winter mornings, or some carrot sticks and houmous.
- Lead by example – be the change you want to see in your kids. If you want them to change their breakfast, it’s probably best to make changes to your own as well!
In essence, we need to get back to sugar being an occasional treat rather than a daily staple. Our kids not only need that, they deserve it – for the sakes of their future health and wellbeing.
— Dr Chatterjee