All that worry about sugar is working: children are now eating less of it

Diet & Fitness

19th January 2017

The trouble with reasonable voices — as current global politics are neatly illustrating for us — is that they tend to get drowned out by, well, the less measured ones.

So you may have missed last week’s state of the nation report from the Children’s Food Trust, which is really about the state of our nation’s plates. Or, more specifically, our children’s plates.

Because what’s pleasing about this report is its refusal to have hysterics about the state of children’s nutrition. It is really rather refreshing reading. Like listening to a responsible adult standing over some tussling toddlers and asking everyone to ‘take a deep breath and use our words’.

So instead of headline-grabbing statistics about small sugar junkies rotting their teeth over the breakfast table, we get an altogether more balanced and, in the long run, revealing picture of what the average British child actually ate last year.

Two thousand and one parents were polled about their children’s eating habits in order for us to learn that, up and down the country, the most desired dish for the under-16s in 2016 was… spaghetti bolognese (next came pizza and roast dinner).

From Southampton to Stornaway, the vegetables children wanted to accompany it were… fresh carrots and cucumbers, or frozen mixed veg and peas. When reaching for a fruit snack, British children chose — drum roll, please — bananas or apples.

It’s all reassuringly, comfortingly mundane. And, indeed, the report points to a generation of parents who know what their children need and worry about making it happen. Parents who read the labels in the supermarket, and attempt to hide the orange squash at home, because more than half of us think our children have too much sugar in their daily diet.

I am an out-and-proud member of that worrying tribe. I spent last year attempting to cut processed sugar from my children’s diets. So I, like the majority of the parents surveyed in the report, can tell you that it is absolutely possible. As long as you never leave the house.

Because the report indicates that all our worrying is working. To a point. Four- to 11-year-olds are consuming significantly less sugar than they have in previous years. Yet sugar intake remains, on average, more than double government recommendations.

Why? Because, to a child, the world beyond your front door is sugar Shangri-La. More than a third of parents surveyed said they were pestered for junk food at least once a day. The most common place? The supermarket. Rule one of sugar-free parenting: never take your children out shopping.

Or, in fact to school. Interestingly, it isn’t school meals that come under fire in the report but the journey to the gates. On the way to or from school, over three quarters of 13- to 15-year-olds stop for food or drink at least twice a week. They aren’t buying chia seed smoothies. A quarter of all fast food takeaways in Britain are located within a five-minute walk of a school.

A report cited from 2015 makes depressing reading. ‘It is noticeable that retailers particularly engage with young people in particularly deprived neighbourhoods… [encouraging] young people to spend what little money they have with them…’

Don’t, for goodness’ sake, take them out to eat either. More than a third of parents surveyed said they did that at least once a week, most commonly to McDonalds. Yet a McDonalds happy meal of cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate milkshake gives a seven- to 10 year-old almost their entire daily limit of saturated fat and sugar. Choose the ‘healthy’ option with fish fingers, carrot sticks and water and it won’t provide enough energy for lunch.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, turn off your TV. That’s the other time parents are most likely to say that their children pester them for junk. Careful at the swimming pool, too — I know, I know, exercise is good, but the glow of the chocolate-crammed vending machine is irresistible.

As the Children’s Food Trust CEO Linda Cregan says: ‘The good news is that as a country, we’ve taken the first step… Parents don’t want to pass on to their kids the ravaging health effects of poor diet that this generation of parents is experiencing.’

So now, it’s just the outside world that’s the problem. ‘It’s an environment which makes it so difficult for children to understand what healthy means, and for parents to push back against pester power.’ 

Other than that small detail, being a parent who makes good food choices in 2016 is a piece of (sugar-free) cake.