Avoid snacks high in fat, sugar and salt, says Helen O’Callaghan.
With school start-up just around the corner, it’s a good time to reflect on recent research that identified afternoons and evenings as danger times when it comes to giving junk foods to children.
Just before the summer holidays, research in support of the Start campaign revealed that foods like biscuits, crisps, chocolate and sweets are the second most consumed food group by children.
Almost 25% of all meals now include food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar — ones not recommended as part of a healthy diet.
The research also found 29% of children’s afternoon and evening snacks are foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
“The stand-out [finding] is how junk food is now a filler between and after meals in families’ daily diets,” says safefood director of human health and nutrition Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan.
“Parents involved in the research told us [they] want their children to feel cared for and not to be hungry when they get in from school or before dinner’s ready.
Echoing her colleague’s assessment that treat foods are “available everywhere, highly palatable, cheap and frequently on special offer”, Dr Marion O’Reilly, safefood chief specialist in nutrition, says it’s almost like the food pyramid has been turned on its head.
“Foods that should be the smallest amount consumed are the largest being promoted.
"Research from January 2019 showed that one-third of food on promotion in supermarkets is high fat, high sugar and high salt.”
Dr O’Reilly says safefood ran focus groups with parents who said the foods are everywhere.
“They go shopping and these foods are prominently on special offer, up around the counter.
"Parents find it hard to go against the tide and step away from what everybody else is doing. And children are drawn to these foods.”
The Start campaign, a five-year public health awareness initiative from safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland, is encouraging parents to start tackling treats by swapping them for healthier after-school and evening snacks, and to have treats in small amounts.
“If your child is having four of these high-calorie foods a day and you can cut it down to two, that’s a huge achievement,” says Dr O’Reilly.