Changing food habits to tackle childhood obesity

At present, approximately 1 in 4 primary school children are overweight or obese. As a result, Safefood are urging parents to make practical changes to everyday lifestyle habits such as portion sizes, drinks, treats and screen time to make a big difference to the health and wellbeing of children and combat Ireland’s high levels of childhood overweight and obesity.

Safefood’s new public health campaign to help parents take on childhood obesity, which launched today, will see a nationwide ad campaign, as well as a free booklet for parents that will be available nationwide in crèches, health centres, GP surgeries, and from public family health nurses and local libraries.

“Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in Europe and Ireland is one of the countries worst affected, ” said Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald today. “I particularly welcome this new campaign as it seeks to help parents with very practical tips and ideas for actions they can take. We know from research that tackling obesity in childhood requires a family-centred approach.”

Safefood’s key tips for tackling childhood obesity are:

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Reduce portion sizes

Children’s portion sizes have gotten bigger over the last 20-30 years. They’re children, so should have child-sized portions – for example, a five-year-old needs about half the amount an adult does.

  • Give them smaller portions of food on their plates to start with, and if they want more food, then give it to them.
  • If they say they’re hungry, offer them something nutritious like fruit and vegetables (for example, an apple or handful of grapes).
  • Don’t pressure them to eat all the food on their plate, allow them to stop when they say ‘I’ve had enough’.
  • Look at the proportions of food you offer during the day, they should be roughly: one-third fruit and vegetables; one-third starchy foods like pasta or potatoes; one-third dairy (eg, milk, cheese) and protein (eg, fish, chicken, lentils).

Manage ‘treat’ foods

This means reducing the amount of foods and drinks that are high in sugar, fat and salt, including sweets, chocolate, crisps, biscuits, cakes and fizzy drinks.

  • Cut down on treat foods, but don’t ban them. Banning them makes them more appealing.
  • Keep the sweets cupboard or cookie jar out of sight – and out of mind.
  • When you have sugary foods, eat them with a meal. It’s better for their teeth and means they won’t fill up on treats between meals.
  • Praise them and offer non-food treats, like a game of football, a trip to the playground or disco-dancing at home.

Replace sugary drinks

Sugary drinks, which include fizzy drinks, squashes, cordials and juice drinks are linked with excess weight in children. Give water instead.

  • If your family loves soft drinks or other sweetened drinks, reduce them gradually. Start by adding plenty of water to cordials and squashes, then add extra water each time to squashes and cordials to reduce your child’s taste for sweetness.
  • Make water freely available between meals.

Make being active fun

All physical activity counts towards your kids’ 60 minutes a day of exercise. And you don’t have to do it all at once.

  • If your children have not been active at all, start slowly with bursts of 15 to 30 minutes – and build it into your daily routine.
  • Free play is just as important as structured sports. Running around, playing in the garden or local park and having fun ALL count.
  • Get more active as a family and find out what’s going on in your community via or
  • Join in! Adults need to be active too for 30 minutes a day.

Have less screen time

Zero screen time is recommended for children under two years, and older children should have less than two hours per day.

  • Don’t make too many strict rules at once. Start gradually and reduce by 5 minutes a day – that’s 35 minutes a week.
  • Remove screens from your children’s rooms.
  • Make meal-times a technology-free zone – no phones, TV, computers etc.
  • Don’t forget to practise what you preach – if you’re attached to your device for long periods of time, your children will expect to be as well.

Encourage more sleep

Children who don’t get enough sleep have less energy to be active and are more likely to go for high-fat and high-sugar foods.

  • Regular bedtime routine can help children get the right amount of sleep.
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
  • The recommended hours of sleep per night are: 11 hours for under-5s; 10+ hours for over-5s; 9+ hours for over-10s.

For more information on how you can make changes at home, as well as meal planners, reward charts, food swap ideas and other helpful tools, visit Safefood

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