For your tot’s sake, steer clear of fast and processed foods and start paying closer attention to his diet.

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Brit celeb chef Jamie Oliver sure has sautéed and stirred his way into our hearts as TV’s The Naked Chef, but these days, the 41-year-old father of five is also determined to change the way our kids eat. In 2010, Oliver told a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference audience in Long Beach, California, that our children’s lives would be a decade shorter, thanks to a diet loaded with junk or processed food and additives, which is low in freshness and nutrition.

He adds, “Thirty years ago, most of the food was largely locally produced and fresh, now it’s largely processed, full of all sorts of additives and extra ingredients… Today, French fries are considered vegetables!”

“Thirty years ago, most of the food was largely locally produced and fresh, now it’s largely processed, full of all sorts of additives and extra ingredients.”

How much is too much?

This topic hits home as Singaporean children’s eating patterns have also changed over the years. Besides eating more meals outside the home, their portion sizes and frequency of snacking are also escalating. With more kids also choosing sweetened drinks over water or milk, their increased salt and sugar intake is making them fatter and sicker.

Salt and sugar are off-limits if your baby is below age 1. Yet, SmartParents expert and
paediatrician Dr Low Kah Tzay notes that a American Heart Association study revealed that children between ages 1 and 4 are busting their daily recommended intake of sugar of three to four teaspoons a day by consuming between 12 and 21 teaspoons ― or up to seven times more. Other reports indicate that the average 3- to 4-year-old eats 9 to 10g of salt each day (one teaspoon is equal to 5g), about four times the recommended amount of 2.5g!

The numbers may be hard to swallow, but they don’t lie. Bibi Chia, principal dietitian at Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre at Raffles Hospital, attributes this to parents’ increasing reliance on fast food or instant meals.

“Because it’s more convenient,” notes Chia, who is also the mother of sons of Primary school age. “It also doesn’t help that supermarkets are stocked floor-to-ceiling with items such as sweets, crisps and instant noodles.”

Click to find out how bad eating habits are formed…

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Habits form when young

Eating is habit- and behaviour-related, Chia points out. For instance, junior can form bad habits when you let him watch TV or iPad shows while he eats, or when you reward him with tasty treats for good behaviour. Plus, busy families tend to eat out or get takeaways more often.

Dr Low adds, “Parents tend to indulge their kids when they’re young, then expect them to be wise and make healthy food choices when they grow up — this is not going to happen!”

Incidentally, processed food means that something is either added — usually sugar or salt — or removed, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. By that way, when your mini-muncher snacks on “empty calories”, like sugary drinks and crisps, he has no room to savour his nutritious, regular meals.

Notes Christine Ong, senior principal dietitian at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, “A high salt intake has been linked to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke and kidney disease.”

A diet that’s high in refined sugar doesn’t just increase your child’s risk of tooth decay and weight gain, it also lessens his interest in regular food. In severe cases, sugar can turn into liver fat, which prevents the liver from processing insulin properly. In the long term, this puts your mini-me at greater risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or stroke.

Ong warns, “Also, since eating habits are formed from a young age, a toddler who is accustomed to highly seasoned foods and sugary drinks is likely to continue doing so well into adulthood.”

“Parents tend to indulge their kids when they’re young, then expect them to be wise and make healthy food choices when they grow up — this is not going to happen!”

Where salt and sugar hide

Processed meat like hot dogs, nuggets and luncheon meat are major contributors of salt in children’s diets. Others include potato crisps and fast food, while they consume sugar largely in the form of soft drinks, sweets, biscuits, kueh and ice cream.

However, most parents aren’t aware that salt also lurks in less well-known culprits such as condiments (soy sauce, chilli sauce or ketchup), gravy, soups, rice crackers and bottled pasta sauces usually intended for adult consumption.

Similarly, sugar is also hidden in sweetened breakfast cereals, flavoured milk and bottled fruit juices — even those that claim to contain 100 per cent fruit. In his TED presentation, Oliver highlights that flavoured milk can have the same amount of sugar as a can of fizzy drink and preschoolers usually have two glasses of such milk daily. Nor should you be fooled by low-fat alternatives — Dr Low says that some low-fat foods “may also have added sugar to improve the taste”.

So, let your munchkin chow down on freshly cooked food. Include foods with natural sodium, like mushrooms and tomatoes. Use herbs and spices to add flavour instead of sauces, and make your own stock with chicken or vegetables, instead of reaching for ready-made ones. Chia also suggests that you involve your kewpie when you’re preparing food.

Chia advises, “Cook at home as much as you can and with foods that are naturally sweet, such as corn or carrots. Start educating them when they’re young on what foods are good and bad. Then get them to pick out what they would like to eat when you’re shopping at the supermarket.”

Learn how to turn your tyke into a healthier eater…

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Make wise decisions

When buying groceries, always read the nutritional labels, so you know exactly what your cherub is consuming. Compare the sodium and sugar content and opt for the item that has less of both. Always pick those with a “Healthier Choice” or “Lower Salt” symbol.

If the food item does not have a nutritional label, use the ingredient list as a guide — since these are usually listed in decreasing order of quantity. Ong points out, “If an ingredient is listed among the first three ingredients on the list, it indicates that the food contains a large amount of that particular item.”

It’s all about making wise decisions when you’re out and about, too. Avoid anything fried and request extra veg to counter the effects of the salt when choosing a “soupy” option. Also, shave off as many calories as you can. For instance, if your little one demands a burger, opt for a fish or chicken one without the mayo. If fries are included in his meal, then omit the salt. Instead of calorie-rich chocolate cake, pick one with a fresh fruit topping and remove the icing. Natural fruits may be high in sugar, but they are also full of fibre to keep your child full and reduce the absorption of saturated fats.

And plan ahead when you’re heading out to eat, advises Chia. “When you don’t plan, you always end up some place which has less healthy options. Also, stick to small portions. If you end up ordering too much, share it or choose not to finish it.”

“Parents try to be strict with their children on what they can eat, while they themselves make unhealthy food choices.”

Be a good role model

At the end of the day, you have the power to instil good eating patterns in your child or change bad ones. So, set a good example as a parent by refraining from scarfing down foods you don’t want your kewpie to eat.

Dr Low points out, “Parents try to be strict with their children on what they can eat, while they themselves make unhealthy food choices.” This won’t just confuse your mini-me, he’ll also not take you seriously when you present him with healthy options. So, if you don’t want him to eat something, don’t stock it at home. Also, ensure that every adult in the family abides by the same food rules.

Of course, this is not to say that you should steer your kewpie clear of “bad” foods totally. Chia stresses, “Everything in moderation.” Though she usually recommends fruit as a snack for her kids, she also exposes them to very small portions of less healthy foods during weekends. This isn’t just to satisfy their curiosity, they are less likely to crave them at other times. Adds Chia, “I also make it a point to offer these foods after a main meal, when they are fuller, so they’ll eat less of it.”

So, what do you do if your kiddo has already entered the “dark side”, demanding salty and sugary foods at every meal? Ong recommends, “Regain control over your child’s food choices using a reward system — like giving him an extra 15 minutes of storytime to replace his daily fries with rice, noodles or potatoes.”

By the way, let your independent mini-me make his own choices by asking him to pick from two healthy options. This way, you can avoid mealtime meltdowns because he’ll feel like he’s included in the decision-making process. Follow these winning ways to turn your sweetie’s palate around, so that he grows up into a healthier and happier adult. Nothing’s sweeter than that!

Click for ways to serve healthier options of your tot’s favourite foods…

By the numbers…

Suss out the salt and sugar content in junior’s favourite foods.

Infographic: Lim Jae-Lynn

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Switch, please!

How to replace your mini-muncher’s unhealthy food fads with wholesome substitutes.

JUNIOR WANTS… Pizza.
OFFER… Homemade mini-cheese pizzas topped with pineapple, tomatoes and veggies.

JUNIOR WANTS… Sugary breakfast cereal.
OFFER…Whole-grain cereal with dried fruit for sweetness.

JUNIOR WANTS… French fries.
OFFER… Oven-baked sweet potato “fries”.

JUNIOR WANTS… Mac and cheese.
OFFER… Homemade wholewheat pasta with a sprinkle of grated Parmesan cheese.

JUNIOR WANTS… Potato crisps.
OFFER… Plain popcorn with no added butter or salt.

JUNIOR WANTS… Chicken nuggets.
OFFER… Homemade grilled chicken breast cut into fun shapes.

JUNIOR WANTS… A sweet drink.
OFFER… Lightly sweetened barley water.

Photos: iStock

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