The season of trick or treating might technically be behind us but, as new figures show, treating children has become acceptable on almost every single day of the year.
Treats, or food high in fat, sugar and salt, now make up a fifth of a child’s diet — ten times more than the recommended allowance, according to a new study by safefood.
It’s an alarming statistic, particularly as it shows that treats have started to displace nutritional food, Dr Marian O’Reilly, chief specialist in nutrition at safefood, tells Feelgood.
“Foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt have gone from an occasional food to an everyday food. The short-term impact of this is that children don’t get all the nutrients they need for growth and development, such as iron and calcium,” she says.
Dentists have already highlighted the short-term impact on dental health but a diet high in fat, sugar and salt is also linked to many chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
So why do parents give unhealthy treats to their children?
That question was at the centre of new research led by University College Dublin. It found that parents treated children to reward good behaviour (42%), because children asked for them (42%) or to make children feel better (29%).
The top three treats were: sweets (45.2%); chocolate (45.1%) and ice cream.
Parents, however, told researchers that they found treats unavoidable as they were ever-present – in supermarkets, cinemas, garages, sometimes even clothes shops, and they were often on special offer.
“And we love to feel we are getting a bargain,” says Dr O’Reilly, though further research shows that we are now spending more on treats than we are on fruit and vegetables.
However, the treating crisis — if we can call it that — happened gradually and safefood has joined forces with the HSE and Healthy Ireland to help parents go against the norm and say no to treats.
Its new ‘Start’ campaign encourages parents to be the hero by being the ‘bad guy’ who says no treats. That is not always easy, admits Sarah O’ Brien, HSE national lead on the ‘Start’ campaign: “We also have to recognise that it’s sometimes easier for a parent to give in to the treat when they are too tired to say no or prepare a healthier option. It’s not easy but taking small steps will make improvements over time that will start children on the way to a healthier life.”
The campaign also aims to equip parents with tips and skills to change their children’s snacking habits.
HSE psychologist Peadar Maxwell says practical steps include having fewer treats at home and offering healthier alternatives.
“Shifting rewards for good behaviour from food treats to praise, a hug or a game, and giving attention to our children when they chose healthy snacks, all help too,” he says.
Don’t beat yourself up if you do give in, he adds. “Don’t despair. Instead, reflect on what happened and decide what you can change for the next time. It’s really important to stay positive and if treats are a long-term habit, it may require patience for healthy snacking to become the norm.”
“Just make a start,” says Dr O’Reilly.
Here are some of the campaign’stips to help you cut down on treats:
For more information, see www.makeastart.ie