Should kids be kilojoule aware?

Kilojoules galore ... How much do we teach kids about food?
Kilojoules galore ... How much do we teach kids about food? 

Over the last few months I have been working with the NSW Food Authority on their 8700 campaign. It was named 8700 to highlight the average number of kilojoules an adult requires every day to stay in energy balance. I have to start by stating that I don’t advise counting the kilojoules (kJ) in every single food and drink that you consume, but it is a good idea to have what I call kJ awareness.

The campaign has two key goals. Firstly, to teach people what kJ are and secondly, to be aware of how many kJ you should be consuming a day to help you make better choices when eating out. In addition to this, the law now requires that all food outlets with 20 stores or more must display the kJ on their menu board. This gives you the ability to make the best choice when eating out and by making a few simple swaps you can save yourself unwanted kJ and, in turn, unwanted weight gain.

But can we use this information to help us make better choices for our kids and is kJ counting something we should be encouraging for children or are we setting them up for disordered eating?

I don’t believe we need to kJ count for kids, just as we don’t have to for ourselves. But that awareness is important and you might be astounded at the kJ counts in some of the foods you commonly give to your children. Let’s take banana bread (which should really be called banana cake but bread makes us all feel better about eating it). One slice of banana bread varies from 1360kJ to 2430kJ. The latter constitutes almost a third of a seven-year-olds daily requirements! Yet I know many kids that age, including my own, who would happily polish it off.

I could give you many other examples of seemingly relatively healthy and numerous not-so-healthy foods and meals that are in fact energy-dense and easy to over-consume. Armed with the kJ facts and knowing your ‘ideal figure’ and that of your child’s, allows you to make a more appropriate choice, or you can simply reduce the portion size (e.g. share the banana bread between kids or keep some for another day).

I don’t believe we need to kJ count for kids, just as we don’t have to for ourselves. But that awareness is important and you might be astounded at the kJ counts in some of the foods you commonly give to your children.

So how do you know how many kilojoules your child needs? Simply go to www.8700.com.au and enter the information to find your child’s ideal figure. This is the approximate amount of energy they need to meet their nutritional demands for daily energy and growth.

It is not geared towards weight loss. You can select that option for yourself, but it is rarely appropriate for children. If you are concerned that your child is overweight visit a health care professional, who can help you formulate a plan. But in essence the goal is to allow the child to grow into their weight by monitoring the below.

  • Watch their food choices and make sure you are doing everything you can to provide minimally processed, nutritious meals.
  • Teach them about nutrition and why it is important to think about what we eat.
  • Encourage movement and exercise without it becoming a chore.
  • Limit TV and screen time. It’s amazing how a daily two-hour screen time limit is easily surpassed when you add up time spent on DS-like games, computer and TV.

I don’t think it’s the right move to make our children overly conscious of kilojoules. The focus should instead be on the healthfulness of a particular food and the positive attributes it brings. But there is nothing wrong with teaching them what kilojoules are (a unit of energy) and helping them be aware – without involving emotions (particularly with girls) – that we need to balance our daily intake with expenditure.

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As they get older they will then be able to make sense of food labels and menu boards. As always make this information appropriate for the age of your child. As a scientist I always tend to err towards being very factual with my children, but in this instance it is an approach that works because it removes the emotions. You can do this without talking about consequences (i.e. getting fat) but couch it in a healthy message.

While eating disorders are of course a major concern, the fact is that many more children are overweight or heading towards being obese, and many of them are malnourished due to consumption of energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods. By being kilojoule aware we can help guide ourselves and our kids towards better choices, setting us all up for a healthier and brighter future.

What do you think? Should kids be kilojoule aware? Leave your comment below.

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