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Future proof: What parents need to know about diets

                                                                                                                             

9 minutes

There’s tonnes of conflicting information out there about clean eating, but what should we believe? Holly Cave cuts through the chaos to see how to help your child stay healthy.

  • Should your family think about going vegan?
  • Sugar now makes up 13.5% of the diets of 4- to 10-year-olds
  • Discover ways to promote body confidence in your child

Help keep your child healthy

Diets have become a hot topic in recent years, and it’s harder than ever to know how to make the right choice for your child. In this article, we’ll look at the popularity of meat-free diets and whether that could affect your child’s health, as well as other questions you might have about food consumption and dietary requirements.

More people than ever seem to be choosing a plant-based diet, with the number of vegans quadrupling between 2014 and 2018. And last year, the UK launched more vegan products than any other nation.

But should we be encouraging our children to follow suit?

Going meat-free

“Public perception is changing fast and old stereotypes are fading slowly but surely,” says Jimmy Pierson, director of food awareness organisation ProVeg. He is bringing up his child on the same vegan foods he and his partner enjoy. “The vegan diet contains everything you need for great health at every age and life stage – including childhood and infancy – and that's the position of the British Dietetic Association, who are widely regarded as the leading authority on matters like this in this country.”

But not all nutrition experts agree that plant-based diets are beneficial for children.

"It is difficult to ensure a healthy and balanced vegan diet in young infants,” argues Professor Mary Fewtrell, professor of paediatric nutrition at University College London. “Our advice is that if parents pursue a vegan diet for their child, they must seek and strictly follow medical and dietary advice to make sure their infant receives adequate nutrition.”

Some experts also suggest that plant-based diets don’t provide enough energy from calories for young children, affecting growth rates and development.

“Well that is something that's been raised,” says Pierson. “Breastfeeding for as long as you can goes some way to alleviating that and eating little and often is another good way to do it. There's a misconception that things like calcium come exclusively from dairy products, but if you look at green leafy vegetables, almonds, tofu, and spinach for example, they've got much higher rates of absorption than dairy products.”

If you’re thinking of making the switch to veganism, the NHS advises that you are careful to ensure your child is getting all the nutrients they need, especially calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

The NHS recommends calcium-rich foods such as bread, leafy green vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, okra, etc), and almond nut butter for children on a vegan diet. You can also offer children older than one unsweetened calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as soya drinks.

For vitamin B12, try looking for foods fortified with this vitamin such as yeast extract, breakfast cereals, soya yoghurts and non-dairy milks such as soya, oat and almond.

And don’t forget that all children aged six months to five years – regardless of their diet – should be given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day.

Does your child need to diet?

‘Clean eating’ is a buzzword we hear more and more. But does that make our children’s usual diets ‘dirty’? How can you tell when your child’s diet might truly need an overhaul? And where’s the line between being overweight and just carrying some cute puppy fat?

The statistics suggest there’s a problem. For example, sugar now makes up 13.5% of the diets of 4- to 10-year-olds, while the official recommendation is to limit sugar to no more than 5%. Public Health England’s research shows that the population as a whole is still consuming too much saturated fat, sugars and salt and not enough fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre.

You can help your family by staying clued up on what a balanced diet really means. According to the NHS, that involves:

  • At least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. 
  • Meals based on starchy foods, such as potatoes, bread, pasta and rice – wholegrain varieties when possible.
  • Some milk and dairy products.
  • Some foods that are good sources of protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, beans and lentils.

The NHS website offers lots more great advice on making sure your child is eating healthily and living an active lifestyle without damaging their body confidence.

Encouraging body confidence in your kids

Research shows that body confidence issues start earlier than you might think, with children as young as three or four having ideas about how their body should look.

 

“The relentless pace of life plays its part, and this is exacerbated by the internet,” says Natasha Devon, founder of the Mental Health Media Charter. “Everywhere we look we are constantly told that we're not good enough, that we don't measure up – it's become the wallpaper of our world.”

 

Promoting a healthy diet to your child whilst also being aware of body confidence issues can be tricky. And it’s an important balance to get right, says Natasha.

 

The most conservative estimate is that the four most common mental illnesses in young people – anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders – have risen by 70% in a generation,” she reveals. “And we know that hospitalisations for self-harm and eating disorders have doubled in the past three years.”

 

The Children’s Society has some lovely ideas for activities you and your child or teen can do together. They include writing a ‘top 10’ list of things your child likes about themselves, reducing the time you and your child spend on social media, and doing something nice for your body, such as taking a bubble bath or going outside in the sunshine.


Despite the challenges of modern life, we know more than ever before about how to live healthily and how to bring our children up healthily.

 

As parents, we can play an important role in helping our children to understand how to look after themselves and appreciate their bodies – hopefully this article has given you some new ways of approaching it!