Child obesity is considered one of the most compelling public health issues of our time, according to Dr Aileen McGloin, Safefood’s director of nutrition.

“Being overweight or obese puts children at risk of immediate social and psychological consequences, but also longer term consequences around their risk of cancer, heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes,” she says.

“While it is a compelling issue, it is one, of course, that is preventable.” She acknowledges, however, that it is difficult for parents and children, given the food environment we live in.

“We have created a food environment that is harmful to our health and we haven’t prioritised protecting children’s health as a society, so when a child goes anywhere, they are bombarded by ads for unhealthy food, and even at home on their own phone and TV.

“There is an absolute abundance of unhealthy food around, and when they do things like go into the supermarket with mum, or dad for petrol, for example, the unhealthy items are at eye level. All this doesn’t make it easy to eat healthily. In Safefood, we do understand how difficult it is for parents.”

That said, she points out that Safefood has been running a START campaign for the past five years to support and encourage parents to adopt a number of positive health behaviours.

“We are coming from the nutrition side, of course, but we work with the HSE on the physical activity side as well,” she adds.

More veg, less treats, fewer screens

So, what are her key messages of the campaign?

“They include encouraging increased fruit and vegetables in the diet, and reducing treats. About a fifth of children’s energy intake, their calorie intake, comes from treat food – so the disproportionality of unhealthy foods in the diet is quite stark.”

She also talks to parents about managing portion sizes, limiting screen time and getting more exercise.

“Limiting screen time is important,” she says. “The lines around this blurred during the pandemic. There is ‘utility’ screen time around homework and communicating with their friends, of course, and then there is leisure screen time, like the games and all of the checking Tik Tok, or whatever kids are doing.

“Screen time displaces physical activity time. Children need to be active for about an hour a day for their health. That doesn’t mean organised physical activity, it can simply mean going out to play in the garden.”

Keep an eye on drinks

The drinks recommended by Safefood nutritionists are just two – water and milk – with one small glass of fruit juice as part of a main meal, perhaps.

“The good news is that consumption of sugary drinks among children in Ireland has reduced, but we have to keep an eye on that message, because that’s where a lot of sugar can sneak into the diet.”

She doesn’t advise opting too often for low sugar drink varieties either.

“Parents have moved to low sugar varieties and while it’s a little better, it’s not ideal, and now with this new advice around aspartame from the World Health Organisation [about it being a possible cancer risk], again it’s something to keep an eye on. While children would have to be drinking a lot of it to be breaching the WHO safety limits, artificially sweetened drinks should be kept to an occasional treat.”

She advises making water as attractive as possible for children, by putting slices of fruit in it and serving it cold from the fridge.

“Drinking water is an important habit to encourage,” she says. “If you start it in childhood, it’s lifelong.”

Again, with low sugar, artificially sweetened varieties of drinks, Safefood asks parents to dilute them.

“We try not to encourage their use at all, however, because you are creating the propensity for sweet taste and that’s the important bit there.”

Good sleep routine

A healthy routine is very important in terms of bodyweight, she says.

“That’s not necessarily intuitive for people. A good sleep routine for children is one where you have a regular sleep and wake time, you have hygiene habits around nighttime – washing the face and the teeth – and strong communications from parent, the reading of the story, the hugs and then not going to bed either too full or too hungry. The ideal is a small snack before bed and sleeping in a quiet room, with no distractions or screens. All of that kind of routine helps.”

Research is still being done on the mechanisms around sleep and bodyweight, but it has been shown that sleep does affect the appetite hormones in the gut, she states.

“If you’re tired, the last thing you’ll feel like doing the next day is exercising. There is a relationship between sleep and obesity, and being overweight in adults and in children, so a healthy sleep routine is important for us all.”

Is enough being done?

But is Dr McGloin hopeful that this compelling public health issue will be tackled? “I don’t think anyone is doing enough anywhere,” she says. “We would actually have to unravel our entire food system to recreate something that’s actually conducive to being healthy, but this isn’t a uniquely Irish problem. I am hopeful, in the sense that I see policies and measures like taxation of sugary drinks, school standards being set and food labelling legislation coming to fruition that is targeting the food environment, as well as individual behaviour. I think we’ll see a lot more of that. I also think we’ll see a lot more work at local level through Sláintecare Healthy Communities, where there is an emphasis on creating a healthy environment at a local level.”

She feels that, as a society, we are at a new beginning stage in terms of thinking more broadly, instead of targeting individual behaviours.

“The entire food environment is being targeted to make it easier for people to make better decisions around food and activity,” she adds.

Starting healthy habits

Dr McGloin emphasises that changing a family’s diet and lifestyle is a process rather than a one-off event. Here she provides some more specific tips to help parents make a start.

1. Decide on one change

Choose one key area to change and start small. Be realistic about what your family can do. Think of a goal and gradually build on these healthy changes. For example you could:

  • Drink water with dinner instead of sugary drinks.
  • Have a treat-free day.
  • Change from sugary breakfast cereal, to wholemeal breakfast cereal on weekdays.
  • 2. Make a plan

    Be clear and realistic about what you are going to achieve. Think about when, where and how to achieve your goal. Make some preparations. For example:

  • If you want to reduce treats, make sure to include healthy snacks in your shop so you have alternatives.
  • If you want to increase fruit and vegetables at dinner time, plan your meals at the beginning of the week.
  • If you want a better sleep routine, plan a gentle wind-down and set a clear bedtime.
  • 3. Talk to your child about this change

    Talk to your child about what you are going to change and why. Children accept change much better when they know what is happening and are involved.

    Decide on one or two simple rules to help your children through the change. Be positive. Your rules should tell your child what to do instead of what not to do. For example:

  • “We’re going to have a healthy snack after school.”
  • “We’re going to turn off the TV one hour before bed.”
  • 4. Get family, friends and carers on board

    Tell your friends, family or other adults who spend a lot of time with your child that you are making some changes and ask them to help.

    Explain to them your concerns and your reasons for changing. Be firm and clear about the new rules and their role in making a positive change for your children.

    5. Be consistent

    It can be hard to make a change, but it does get easier. Children can kick back and refuse to go along with the change.

    In a busy family life, it can be difficult and very tempting to give up, but if you stick to your rules and approach, you child will come around and accept the change.

    6. Praise and encourage your child

    Praise your child for the effort they put into making the change, rather than focusing on the change itself. For example, congratulate your child on trying new vegetables, even if they don’t eat all of them.

    Getting kids involved in the decisions around food and preparing food also helps them feel valued, and encourages them to have a good relationship with food.

    7. Parenting is tough, but you are tougher

    It is tough to make changes around healthy eating and being active as a family, but small steps and daily wins are important for your child’s health and well-being.

    If you set a realistic goal, then you know you can do this. Keep telling yourself that you can. Think about those days that went well and how you managed them.

    8. Celebrate success

    When you achieve your goal, no matter how big or small, take a moment to appreciate what you have achieved.

    Making changes takes a lot of time and effort, and you deserve to acknowledge this. Your efforts are helping to set them up for a healthier life both now and the rest of their lives.