To meet their needs for growth and energy, children need a healthy diet. That means some big dietary changes since the average child's diet now gets over 40% of kilojoules from junk food and drinks. These products often crowd out more nutritious foods and can also have specific ill effects on children's health.

Common problems

Surveys show that most children:

  • don't consume enough vegetables;
  • don't eat fruit (note that juice is not equivalent to fruit as it lacks dietary fibre):
  • have white bread and sugary breakfast cereals instead of wholegrain bread and cereals;
  • drink sweet drinks rather than water or milk;
  • have too many 'treat' foods (for example, biscuits, cakes, muffins, muesli bars or other types of confectionery, potato crisps or other savoury snack foods, ice blocks or ice cream, chips and fast foods).

The results of poor eating habits

  • Excess weight is now a problem for 25% of children;
  • Tooth decay is common;
  • Low levels of calcium can have adverse effects on building strong bones;
  • Even before their teens, many children develop poor body image and try fad diets.

Excess weight is the result of too much sedentary activity and poor dietary choices. It not only puts a child at high risk of becoming an overweight adult, with increased risks of serious health problems, but also leads to problems during childhood. These include increasing the risk of:

  • Problems with knees, feet and backs;
  • Sleep apnoea;
  • Asthma;
  • Psycho-social problems.

Looking after children

A healthy diet and more time spent in active play, as well as regular walking, cycling or organised sport are vital for future health.

Foods should mainly be chosen from the 5 food groups:

  • vegetables;
  • fruit;
  • bread/grains/cereals (preferably wholegrain products);
  • milk, cheese or yoghurt (fat-reduced is fine for children over 2) or calcium-enriched alternative milks such as soy;
  • meat, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds.

Suitable drinks are milk or water.

Extras, officially called 'discretionary choices' or 'junk foods' should play only a minor part in the diet. An occasional 'treat' is fine, say once a week, but not several times each day.

How to encourage better food choices

  • Set a good example.
  • Make breakfast a daily habit. A bowl of wholegrain cereal with fruit and milk or yoghurt takes little time to prepare or eat. Or have an egg or cheese or peanut butter on wholemeal toast plus a glass of milk.
  • Give children family foods and don't buy special children's foods.
  • Children who have access to a garden (at home, school or a community garden) are much more likely to eat vegetables.
  • Try to have dinner at the table and with the family where possible. Young children who eat at the family table have better speech development. Older children are less likely to have behavioural problems if they eat at the dinner table with others with whom they can share the day's joys and problems.
  • Teach children to cook and share the responsibility for preparing meals for the family.

For more information, see www.eatforhealth.gov.au.

Last Reviewed: 01/08/2015

myDr



References

1. National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Australian Dietary Guidelines (2013). Available at: https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/n55 (accessed Aug 2015).