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EAT’s good to start them young

  Thursday, 09 l 12 l 2010 Source:  Mind Your Body; The Straits Times   
By: Joan Chew

While the Health Promotion Board reviews dietary guidelines for the little ones, what can parents do to make sure they eat right? JOAN CHEW reports 

start-youngSO you let Junior drag you to a fast-food outlet for fried chicken every weekend. You bribe him with candy to “be good’’. You reward him with ice-cream or a fizzy drink. And you expect him to enjoy eating brown rice, broccoli and bananas when he starts primary school?  

Nothing doing. The truth is, say dietitians, a child’s eating habits are formed in its infant years and are more or less set by the time he gets into kindergarten. Holistic nutritionist Lara Jay Hequet, a chef who runs nutritional consultancy Viva La Vie, said: “If a child has been eating artificially flavoured foods containing monosodium glutamate, or MSG, since the age of one, it is hard for him to switch to brown rice porridge at age seven. His expectation of what constitutes tasty food has been set.” It is not just what parents feed their child, but themselves. She said: “You must look at what you eat as a family. It’s hard if you eat the wrong food in front of your child and expect him not to do likewise.”

Ms Letty Shiu, a nutritionist from the youth health division of Health Promotion Board (HPB), agrees. Dietary habits are formed below the age of five and become more difficult to change after 11, she added. That is why HPB is focusing on pregnant women and parents of tots in its Healthy Origins And Firm Foundations Programme next April. The aim is to change eating habits to combat chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, also climbing in the population, and it is starting with the young.

Digest this: 10.8 per cent of Singaporeans are now obese, up from 6.9 per cent in 2004. HPB is gaining converts among those who run childcare centres. Its Healthy Eating In Childcare Centres programme (HECCP), supported by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, has a growing list of childcare centres earning the healthy eating award.

From 242 centres in 2006, there are now 389 centres which provide children every day with meals that follow dietary guidelines, such as serving at least a glass of milk each day and no more than one serving of deep-fried food a week. These childcare centres include Cherie Hearts and My First Skool. Well and good. But what happens at home? Dr Wong Mun Loke, deputy director of HPB’s youth health division, thinks the battle of baby’s bulge should be fought by parents.

Beware empty calories
Not all parents know about HPB’s 2007 dietary guidelines for children and adolescents up to the age of 18. Among other things, it details the daily recommended servings of each food group and salt and sugar limits. For example, children aged three to six years require three to four servings of rice and alternatives such as pasta and bread every day, and one serving each of fruit, vegetables, meat and alternatives per day.

The child will also require 500ml of milk. For snacks between main meals, Ms Christine Ong, chief dietitian at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) recommended nutrient-dense foods such as fruit, yogurt and buns with meat or bean fillings. “They should not be given empty calories like sweet foods and drinks, which are high in calories but low in nutrients,” she said.

HPB will update its guidelines next year to ensure they are relevant and take in any latest developments in the field of nutrition for the young, said Dr Wong. A new addition will be dietary guidelines for expectant mothers. However, a HPB spokesman said it is too early to tell what will change.

Ms Bibi Chia, who is a dietitian and director of nutrition consultancy Eat Wise, says she allows her 31/2-year-old son to have cake during children’s parties. But just a small piece, and none of any cream that comes with it. Asked for tips to get the little ones to like the right kind of food, dietitians suggested the following:

  • The dinner table is not a battlefield. No force-feeding, cajoling or threatening children to finish everything put in front of them. Parents should avoid the danger of creating an unpleasant experience with food, which often “perpetuates negative eating behaviour”, said HPB’s Ms Shiu.
  • Do not get worked up over “picky eating”. KKH’s Ms Ong suggested introducing new food to children by giving it to them, say 15 times, with a break of two to three days between offering the new food. If the child still spurns it, parents should “accept that he has specific likes and dislikes, just like adults”, she added.
  • Break up the greens. Ms Ong suggested adding vegetables to other food and sauces, like adding shredded carrots and chopped button mushrooms to spaghetti sauce. Above all, children should not be distracted during mealtimes by the television or toys at the table. The meal could drag on with thechild forgetting to chew and swallow his food, said Dr Chua Mei Chien, consultant from the neonatology department at KKH.  

As for dangling candy as a reward, said Ms Ong, all this suggests to children is that such sweets are better or more valuable than other kinds of food. What Ms Hequet, a mother of two children aged nine and 22, suggested instead would be to reward them in other ways, such as doing things which they enjoy. She said matter-of-factly: “If you don’t show them candy in the first place, they wouldn’t start wanting it.”

Related article: He snacked and had 5 full meals a day

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