Ensuring children eat a balanced and healthy diet is not easy in our age of fast food, confusing advertising messages, and sedentary lifestyles. Obesity rates in Australia continue to rise, in fact, if weight gain continues at current levels, nearly 80 percent of all Australian adults and a third of all children will be overweight or obese by 2025.
There has been much discussion on the best approach to turning these startling statistics around, including introducing a fat tax, school weigh-ins, and thirdly, arming parents and children with the knowledge to live healthier lives.
Poor food selection is one of the major contributing factors to weight gain in children, with the most recent National Nutrition Survey (ABS 1999), concluding that many children are getting most of their energy from foods that are high in fats, sugars and salts.
Results like these can cause you to draw the conclusion that all fats and sugars are bad for us but that isn't the case. Here is the rundown on fats and sugars and what you need to know on how to make healthier choices for your family.
What are fats? Without fats our bodies could not function. They are an essential nutrient that is required to give us energy and allow other nutrients we consume to do their part in keeping our bodies healthy. This is especially important for children, as the right amount of fat in their diet allows young brains and nervous systems to develop correctly.
Types of fats: There are four categories of fats, most foods contain more than one kind, and not all of them are good for you.
- Saturated fats are most commonly found in foods such as meat and meat products, dairy products, and processed foods such as packaged chips, biscuits, cakes and pastries. Consuming too much saturated fats will raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.
- Monounsaturated fats are present in avocados, olives, red meat, whole milk products, nuts, popcorn, wholegrain wheat, cereal and oatmeal. This type of fat, in moderation, is considered by health experts to reduce a person's risk of developing heart disease.
- Polyunsaturated fats can be consumed through foods such as oily fish - like salmon, mackerel, and sardines - sunflower oil, safflower oil and grapeseed oil. The Omega-3 polyunsaturated acids found in oily fish is particularly good for brain function and lowering blood cholesterol levels for healthy hearts.
- Trans fats are either man made or can occur naturally in some animals, such as cattle and sheep through the way they break down their food. They are found in highly processed foods such as doughnuts, pies, pastries, biscuits, french fries and other fried foods. They can also be found, in small amounts, in beef, lamb, veal and dairy products. They offer no nutritional benefit and promote poor health by increasing bad cholesterol and lowering levels of good cholesterol.
Which fats should I eat? The Heart Foundation recommends you swap trans and saturated fats for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats wherever possible.
You can do this by feeding your family:
- Two to three serves of oily fish a week
- Switching butter for margarine made from canola, sunflower or olive oil
- Cooking with oil made from vegetable and seed oil
- Eating lean meat and skin-free poultry, limiting processed meats such as ham, salami and sausages
- Selecting reduced, low or no fat dairy foods, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese
- Limit take-away and highly processed foods such as pastries, pies and biscuits
What are sugars? Sugars are carbohydrate that come from the sugar cane plant, sugar beets and are also naturally present in fruits, vegetables and dairy. Our bodies use sugar to give energy to our cells by breaking it down to produce glucose (blood sugar) that is then used to transport sugar from your blood into your cells to be used as energy.
Types of sugars: The first thing that usually comes to mind when people think of sugar is the white granular substance you add to tea or coffee. This particular sugar is called sucrose and is made up of equal parts of two simpler sugars. But there are many types of sugars that exist naturally in a variety of foods.
- Sucrose: As mentioned above, is the most commonly recognised form of sugar and is made of fructose and glucose. This is produced by harvesting sugarcane and sugar beets and is also present in fruits and vegetables.
- Fructose: Is the type of simple sugar found in fruit, honey and certain vegetables.
- Lactose: Is the sugar present in cows milk and, therefore, most dairy products. This means that it is also found in breads, cereal and baked goods and is also used in some medicines.
- Galactose: Is also found in milk and dairy foods. Lactose is a derivative of Galactose.
- Glucose: Common sources of glucose are fruit, bread, pasta and cereals. The body breaks down these carbohydrates or sugars into glucose that is then absorbed into our bloodstream and carried to the cells of our body for energy.
Which sugars should I eat? As you can see, sugar is found in most of the foods we eat and an essential source of energy for our bodies. It exists naturally in many of the foods we need to consume daily as part of a healthy, balanced diet but the problem with sugar is that it is also a main ingredient in foods that we shouldn't be eating regularly. Soft drinks, lollies, cakes and chocolates are part of the reason sugar has such a bad name. Our bodies can become addicted to the sudden rush of energy these foods provide and that not only causes our insulin levels to rise and drop quickly, but can cause mood swings, lethargy, weight gain and tooth decay.
- Fruits and vegetables not only offer the natural sugars our bodies need but also have essential vitamins and nutrients that other sugar-rich food sources, like lollies and cakes, don't.
- Low fat dairy products
- Wholegrain breads, pastas, cereals and brown rice
- Foods such as lollies, cakes, soft drinks and chocolates should not be a regular part of your diet. If you are eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholegrain carbohydrates there is no need, from a nutritional standpoint, to include these in your diet.
Fats and sugars are not bad for our health, if eaten correctly. That comes down to three main points - choosing natural, unprocessed food sources wherever possible; not eating more then the recommended daily intake; and not consuming more then your body can burn off.