Free toys can push kids to unhealthy food
Obesity experts say freebies, in the form of toys, should be restricted to attracting children to healthier options.
Michelle Japp knows how important it is for her two-year-old son Leo to eat several servings of vegetables a day, but every attempt is a challenge.
"We try to incorporate veggies into home meals as much as possible, but it's very challenging," she said. "We have to hide it or introduce and explain what they are, but it's much harder than fruit."
Ms Japp is among hundreds of thousands of NSW parents who are struggling to follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which state children should consume 4.5 to 5.5 servings of vegetables every day.
The latest NSW chief health officer's report, which focuses on children's eating habits, shows only 4.8 per cent of children (aged 5 to 15 years) are eating enough vegetables and there is "no sign of real change".
Only 30 per cent are eating more than half the recommended amount of vegetables and 62 per cent are consuming enough fruit each day.
Australia is in the grips of an obesity epidemic, with one in five NSW children considered overweight or obese.
Dr Kerry Chant urged parents to up their own intake of vegetables (also very low) and persevere in their efforts to prepare healthier food (studies show it may take 10 tries before a child starts liking a food).
The report shows the consumption of takeaway food continues to remain high, with an alarming 41 per cent of youngsters tucking into the typically salty and fatty dishes at least once a week.
"We have a bold target to achieve a 5 per cent reduction in childhood overweight and obesity by 2025," Dr Chant said.
"Failure is not an option but it's going to be tough."
The data also shows 50 per cent are devouring occasional treats such as a biscuit or cupcake every day. The majority are eating unhealthy foods such as "hot fried potatoes" at least weekly.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said Australia had a "huge problem" and urged parents to act.
"Far too many children are eating junk food regularly … when it should be the odd treat," he said, as children played at his feet at The Treehouse childcare centre in Sydney CBD.
But the report offered some good news: 55 per cent are rarely or never gulping down sugary drinks, up from 43.5 per cent in 2021.
"We're pleasingly seeing a decline … but still around 45 per cent are consuming sugar sweetened drinks regularly," said Dr Chant.
"They're energy calories without any nutritional benefit."
Youngsters are also drinking less fruit juice, which is high in sugar, low in fibre and can increase the risk of dental erosion.
Dr Chant said it was a no-brainer that junk food advertising sought to increase consumption of unhealthy products, and made it all the more important to "get the message out".
In regards to the two-year-old health star ratings system, she said despite the imperfections, it was an "incredibly useful tool" for time-poor parents.
"The review [of the scheme] will hopefully address some of the potential perversities in the health star rating system, but it's an easy visual tool," she said.
For Lyn Love, mother of two-year-old Calum, health star ratings have helped her make healthier choices.
"I definitely use it and if I pick something up with one star I will put it back, especially if I know Calum would want to eat it," she said.
"I trust it, it's based on science."
Children with excess fat can suffer discrimination and have self-esteem issues, which can lower their chances of engaging in sports. Eighty per cent will continue to have weight problems when they're adults.
"Overweight and obesity can contribute to cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer, as well as muscular and skeletal issues due to excess weight and diabetes is a key issues," Dr Chant said.