There’s a baffling amount of nutritional information out there and as we know, when it comes to children, people can be all too willing to share their well-meaning but often out-of-date advice whether it’s welcome or not.
It doesn’t help that there’s always a new fad diet that everyone’s buying into and even food scientists seem unable to make up their minds about what we should be eating from one minute to the next.
Here paediatric nutritionist and author of Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook Mandy Sacher helps us separate food fact from food fiction so we can make healthier choices and start enjoying delicious food without the side order of guilt.
FOOD FICTION NO. 1: Children need to drink cow’s milk.
Dairy, and in particular milk, has long been promoted as essential for healthy bone development in growing kids. While milk is rich in bone-building calcium it is far from the only source.
Some experts argue that drinking too much milk can contribute to childhood obesity but the main issue I see in my practice is that it takes up too much space in a child’s diet. My advice is to offer children no more than two serves of dairy a day and ensure they come from an organic source wherever possible.
Whether or not you choose to exclude cow’s milk, a healthy calcium intake can be achieved by including good-quality dairy products such as a low-sodium cheese and natural yoghurt fortified with probiotics and non-dairy calcium-rich foods like seeds, pulses and leafy green vegetables (try my Tahini Carrot & Date Bliss Balls).
Dairy (and dairy allergies) is a vast topic which is clearly explored and outlined in step seven of The Wholesome Child book, along with tables and advice on how to choose the best yoghurt, milk, cheese and dairy alternatives.
FOOD FICTION NO. 2: Fruit is the enemy.
Thanks to the anti-sugar crowd, fruit often gets lumped with other high-sugar foods and while it is true that fruit contains the intrinsic sugar fructose it is also a great source of fibre, antioxidants and vitamins A, B and C. But there is such a thing as eating too much of it, especially if it starts to replace other foods in your child’s diet.
The recommended guidelines for children are two serves of fruit per day. However, for children who are active and play sport, I recommend an extra serve of fruit as long as that fruit does not replace other foods in the diet. One serve of fruit is around half a cup of fruit or 150g of fruit per serving.
When it comes to giving children fruit as a snack or dessert, I’m all for it – especially if replacing a refined sugar treat. Unlike lollies or chocolate, when children eat fruit, they ingest the fructose along with fibre and other nutrients that slow down sugar absorption and prevent spikes in insulin.
In step six of my book, I explain the best ways to balance your child’s fruit intake and list which ones contain the most vitamins and antioxidants versus fructose. Pairing fruit with protein and healthy fat will keep your child full for longer – try apple slices with some nut butter, berries with yoghurt or banana with a handful of sunflower seeds. Instead of fruit juice which is all the fructose without the fibre, offer your child a smoothie like this delicious beetroot and strawberry version on my website.
FOOD FICTION NO. 3: Sugar doesn’t affect children’s behaviour.
Ever since American allergist Benjamin Feingold advocated the removal of food additives to treat hyperactivity in children in 1973, there has been a shift in blame from sugar towards the artificial colours, flavours and preservatives packed into sugary foods as the real culprit behind the post-party crazies.
Putting the hyperactivity debate to one side, what we can say for sure is that too much sugar can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. It can also disrupt the proliferation of healthy gut bacteria – which is now thought to be the epicentre of our immune system and overall health.
Mandy Sacher on her school-friendly bliss ball cake pop recipe, that’s free from processed sugars:
I’m all for encouraging a diet that is largely free of refined sugars, but I’m also a mother and a realist. Treat sugar as a ’sometimes’ food and keep it out of everyday staples, use healthy sweeteners like those suggested in my book and avoid food colourings and other additives. Try healthier and simple cake and biscuit alternatives from the Wholesome Childbook – all without using artificial food colouring whenever possible (my Almond Sponge Cake with cream cheese frosting is a healthy crowd pleaser).
Step two in my book offers easy solutions and recipes to manage sweet temptations, set healthy limits and create structure around the whole family’s sugar intake.
FOOD FICTION NO. 4: Coconut oil is actually bad for you.
In recent years coconut oil has been hailed as a cure-all superfood with fans claiming it offers a dizzying array of health benefits ranging from weight loss to whiter teeth. The inevitable backlash from the medical community culminated in a report from the American Heart Association last year arguing that coconut oil is full of cholesterol-raising saturated fat.
While it is true that coconut oil has more saturated fat than butter, it is also one of the richest sources of lauric acid – a healthy medium chain-triglyceride (MCT) found in breast milk. This recent study found that not only did coconut oil have no negative impact on LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol) levels but it even had a positive effect on HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol). The other proven benefit of coconut oil is the fact it is one of the most stable oils at high heat so doesn’t release nasties during cooking.
Although the research is pointing to coconut oil being a safe and beneficial addition to our diets, I always err on the side of moderation and caution and advocate for a wide range of healthy fats to ensure families benefit from all the positive aspects of a food rather than overdosing on any one type of choice and potentially experiencing any harmful side-effects. Moderation and balance is key.
For more information and how to use healthy fats in your child’s diet, see step five of Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook.
FOOD FICTION NO. 5: We should all cut carbs.
Carbohydrates have been getting a bad rap for some time now, however the fact is not all carbs are created equal and for most children, they provide the best source of fuel for growing muscles and active brains. Children can get carbohydrates from starchy vegetables and fruit, but for many children a large portion of their intake tends to come from grains. That’s why choosing the best quality grains is the first step towards improving the quality of your child’s diet.
Processed or refined grains like white rice or white flour are simple or ’empty’ carbohydrates. So instead of retaining all their natural goodness and satiating your child, they very quickly convert to sugar in the bloodstream. A rapid spike in blood sugar may give your child an instant energy hit, but very soon afterwards he will feel tired and struggle to concentrate.
Introducing complex carbohydrates in the form of whole grains won’t create that insulin wobble and the first step in my book explains how to make the switch and increase variety in your child’s diet. Try swapping white bread for sourdough, making your own tortillas and wraps or substituting store bought pizza bases with this delicious version made from cauliflower. Rather than cutting carbs, these simple swaps in your child’s diet will set the foundations for healthy eating and may even help to reduce blood cholesterol levels and lower heart disease risk later on in life.
To learn more about Mandy Sacher please visit the Wholesome Child website. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes, and you can connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.