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Poll shows parents’ healthy food struggle

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Little girl sitting in the gutter eating ice-cream

Photo by: Samantha Sophia

Almost half of pre-schoolers are snacking on treats most days of the week as parents hand them out either as rewards for good behaviour or just because their children ask.

A 2017 Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) National Child Health Poll of 1,980 Australian parents asked a series of questions about their understanding, experiences and opinions in relation to the diet, nutrition and eating habits of their children. It yielded data on a total of 3,704 children aged between one month and 18 years.

The RCH poll found that 41% of pre-schoolers are having treat foods most days of the week (four or more days per week). The leading reasons for parents giving their children treat goods was 'my child requests these food products' (33%) and 'to control or reward by child's behaviour' (24%).

More than half of parents (54%) also incorrectly believe that there is no problem with children having regular treat foods every day, so long as they are balanced by consuming healthy food as well.

In the recent First Five Years Snapshot of Australian Families survey, 41 per cent of parents said health and nutrition was one of the top three topics they would seek advice on from a professional. 

Current recommendations are that treat foods should be limited to only sometimes and in small amounts. 

The report also identified misconceptions around the value of fruit and sports drinks.

Fifteen per cent of parents incorrectly believe a fruit juice product is a healthier choice than water. Almost a third (29%) of parents incorrectly believe children may need sports drinks to recover from regular physical activity.

It found that over a third (35%) of children regularly (at least two to three days per week) consume sugar-sweetened drinks including soft drinks, sport drinks, energy and electrolyte drinks, artificial fruit drinks and cordial, with 16% of pre-schoolers and 21% of teenagers having sugar-sweetened drinks almost every day. 

Parents identified home (66%) as the most common place for children to consume sugar-sweetened drinks, followed by social events (35%), school (18%) and sporting events (10%). 

It’s recommended that treat foods such as lollies, chocolate, processed meat and fried food should be consumed by children infrequently and in small amounts, not on a daily basis.
Dr Anthea Rhodes

Dr Anthea Rhodes, director of the RCH National Child Health Poll and RCH paediatrician, says sugar can be confusing for parents when it comes to food choices.

“This study tells us that the majority of parents are confused about which foods are healthy and which foods aren’t, especially when it comes to choosing the right foods for their kids,” she says.

“With one in four Australian children overweight or obese, it’s vital that parents are supported to make healthy food choices for their families. 

“Most parents (66%) said they find it hard to know how much added sugar is in food. Sugar in drinks can be especially confusing, water is always the healthiest option and kids should be encouraged to drink more water.

“Foods and drinks containing saturated fat, added salt and added sugars have been directly linked to serious health problems in children, such as obesity and tooth decay.

“It’s recommended that treat foods such as lollies, chocolate, processed meat and fried food should be consumed by children infrequently and in small amounts, not on a daily basis,” Dr Rhodes added.

Parents report most children (71%) have adequate daily fruit intake. However, reported fruit intake decreased steadily with age, with 93% of children aged between one and three years meeting the daily requirement, decreasing to 83% of pre-schoolers, 69% of primary school-aged children and only half (56%) of teenagers.

Aussie kids also aren’t getting the daily recommended intake of vegetables with the poll revealing that more than nine out of ten (95%) of school-aged children don’t eat the recommended daily serves of vegetables. Only one in four parents are aware of the recommended daily intake of vegetables for their child, which is around five serves per day.

Of children aged one to three, 37% consumed the recommended amount of vegetables, 18% of pre-schoolers, and 5% of primary school-aged and teenage children.

“A lack of whole fruits and vegetables in the diet can mean children are at risk of not getting enough fibre and essential nutrients, such as iron and vitamin C. This can have immediate and long- term health consequences,” Dr Rhodes says.

“We also found that four out of five primary school-aged kids don’t know how to cook, or prepare food, and nearly half (44%) of teenagers rarely or never help to cook dinner. But if kids are involved in the kitchen it helps them to learn about food and they are also more likely to eat a meal if they have helped to prepare it,” Dr Rhodes added.

Dr Rhodes says it is positive to see that most Aussie kids still get a home-cooked meal most nights of the week.

“It was great to see that most parents said their child has a home-cooked dinner most nights of the week, despite challenges such as a lack of time or energy.”

Parents’ understanding of food, nutrition and weight revealed misunderstandings around diet and exercise.

One in five parents (21%) incorrectly believe that a child's weight is mostly due to genetics and cannot be changed by diet or activity and a further quarter (22%) of parents are unsure about whether weight could be changed by diet or activity. 

Sixteen per cent of parents think overweight children will naturally lose their excess weight as they get older. Almost one in five parents don't recognise that eating patterns established in childhood continue into adulthood.

Key findings of the poll include:

  • Over half of parents (57%) say it is hard to know which foods are healthy choices when buying food for their family
  • Two thirds of parents (67%) find it hard to know how much added sugar is in the food products they buy for their children
  • A third of children (35%) regularly consume sugar-sweetened drinks, with one in six preschoolers having sugar-sweetened drinks almost every day
  • Over a quarter of parents (26%) mistakenly believe fruit drinks may be a healthier choice than water
  • Almost a third (29%) of parents incorrectly believe children may need sports drinks to recover from regular physical activity.
  • More than a third (37%) of school aged children have not been taught how to cook or prepare food and almost half (44%) of teenagers rarely or never help to make dinner
  • Despite one in four Australian children being overweight or obese, only one in eight children in this poll were considered to be overweight or obese by their parents
  • Parents also indicate cost is a barrier to making healthy food choices, with three quarters (77%) of parents saying that they believe healthy food is generally more expensive than unhealthy food.
  • Information for parents

The Royal Children’s Hospital resources 

RCH Kids Health Info – nutrition for babies and toddlers
RCH Weight Management

Other resources

Australian Dietary Guidelines – amounts and kinds of food to eat
Eat for Health – how to understand food labels
Food Switch App
Nutrition Australia – general resources for child health and nutrition 
Early Childhood Australia – general resources for child health and nutrition
Raising Children Network – healthy eating habits for kids
Dietitians Association Australia – fast facts for smart eating

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