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Colman Noctor: Help your children to stay calm by rolling back on treat foods 

Colman Noctor: Help your children to stay calm by rolling back on treat foods 

My older sister used to give up sweets for Lent when she was growing up. Her strategy was to put any treats she was offered over the Lenten period into a large jar so, by the time Lent was over, she would have what seemed at the time an impressive stash. On Easter Sunday, she would gorge on the jar of sweets and the customary Easter Egg, much to the envy of my other sister and me.  She continued to give up treat foods during Lent into adulthood. But when I asked her in April 2020 what she planned to give up, she replied, ‘Nothing – food is the only joy we have left’. 

I had to agree. During lockdown, as a means of providing some joy and comfort, my family had more takeaways, and the treat press had more plentiful supplies than usual. As the world reopened and the restrictions lifted, much of our lockdown lives became a distant memory but the treat press remains full.

Families have struggled to row back on treats, which is reflected in recent research carried out by Safefood. The study is part of its ‘START’ campaign, which I have been involved in over the last two years. The 2021 campaign looked at the importance of sleep for children and this year the focus is on the role of treats in childhood nutrition. This theme arose following the latest supermarket shopping data, which found that families with children spent on average €746 on take-home groceries in the four weeks up to 17 April 2022 and €159 (21%) of this total was spent on foods like biscuits, crisps and chocolate. Also notable was that an average of €49 (6.6%) was spent on fruit and €37 (5%) on vegetables.

Pictured at the launch of the START campaign from safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland is Meadow Neville (6)
Pictured at the launch of the START campaign from safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland is Meadow Neville (6)

These figures differed from previous research in 2019, which showed that families spent on average 19% of their food budget on treat foods, 10% on fruit and 7% on vegetables. This suggests our grocery purchase patterns are moving in the direction of less fruit and vegetables and more confectionery products. Safefood director of nutrition Aileen McGloin says it is worrying that a fifth (20%) of what children eat is made up of foods like chocolate, sweets, biscuits and crisps. These foods provide lots of sugar, salt and fat but little of the nutrients that growing children need and worryingly these treats are displacing healthier foods from what we eat every day, she says. 

Focus on health and lifestyle 

The START 2022 campaign encourages and supports parents to talk to their children about reducing treats as a family and minimising intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar. The focus is on health and lifestyle choices rather than on body weight.

From my experience of working with young people with eating disorders, I’m of the firm opinion that there is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, instead, there are good and bad ‘amounts’ of food. As parents, we need to concentrate on establishing ‘balance’ in our diets, portions and shopping trollies.

Increasingly, research and neuroscience are creating a better understanding of the relationship between our dietary intake and our psychological wellbeing. The links between diet and exercise and their role in promoting good emotional wellbeing are compelling, with more and more people becoming interested in nutritional psychiatry. According to Lachance and Ramsey (2021), our brain is an organ with very high metabolic and nutrient demands, consuming 20% of a person’s daily caloric intake, approximately 400 calories per day. Therefore, the brain, which influences our mood, is fuelled by what we eat.

When we think of common problems in children like tantrums, agitation, anger and frustration, it is easy to overlook the role of diet and the biological influences on these behaviours. Often the traditional meltdowns can happen after a day of fun at an amusement park or a birthday party and we can put this down to tiredness. But perhaps the large intake of sugar and other stimulants during the day are playing a part too. Researchers have found that high consumption of unhealthy, processed carbohydrates causes blood sugars to rise and fall rapidly, which can lead to low energy and irritability.

Creating good nutritional habits and better relationships with treat foods can have many emotional benefits that we can be at risk of dismissing.

Emotional attachment to treat foods

The phrase ‘treat foods’ is problematic as it suggests that this is something ‘special’ or ‘deserved’ or ‘earned’. These associations with food occur throughout childhood. When we fall and hurt ourselves, we are given a treat. When we are sad or upset, someone may offer us a treat. When we behave and eat our dinner, we are rewarded with treats, and when we misbehave, we may have to go without a treat. In doing so, parents create associations between treat foods and our emotions. This is where the origins of emotional eating often stem. Believing emotional distress can be resolved or improved by certain foods, adult ‘comfort-eating’ or ‘bingeing’ are related more to suppressed feelings than disordered eating. This association with food can begin in childhood and, as we know, childhood can last a lifetime. So parents and adults must become aware of the ways our actions influence our children’s long-term relationship with food.

The phrase ‘treat foods’ is problematic as it suggests that this is something ‘special’ or ‘deserved’ or ‘earned’.
The phrase ‘treat foods’ is problematic as it suggests that this is something ‘special’ or ‘deserved’ or ‘earned’.

A lot of the difficulty comes from our understanding of appropriate portion sizes of treats.  If it’s not about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food but good or bad amounts, what is the right amount? The national healthy eating guidelines don’t include treats, but according to the team at Safefood, a handy rule of thumb would be ‘small amounts and not every day’. However, I believe it’s more realistic to make incremental improvements week by week. 

If your children have five treats a day at the moment, aim for three per day next week.

So how can we help parents who are trying to reduce treats but need support to achieve this?

The first suggestion is to plan as a family how you are going to make a collective effort to go easier on the treats and moderate them at home. Start by buying fewer treats so you don’t have as many at home. According to the team at Safefood, you should try to have healthier snack alternatives available when your children are hungry between meals.

Talk to those in your wider family circle about what you’re trying to do and get them on board, so that treat smuggling doesn’t become an issue. All families are different, so choose what works for you and your children. Like all lifestyle changes, the new treat rules meet resistance initially, and you may become unpopular for a time, but rest assured that improving your child’s relationship with food and treat foods will be something they will thank you for in years to come. The only thing that sorts out unfamiliarity is familiarity.

If you are embarking on a drive to ease off on the treats and encourage a better nutritional culture at home, it will help to accept that life will get in the way and things don’t always work as we plan. Birthday parties with goodie bags and trips to other families where bowls of jellies are freely available will happen, but you can start over the next day. It’s not just about cutting down on sweet treats – it’s about building long-term healthy habits for all the family. 

  • Dr Colman Noctor is a child psychotherapist

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