A campaign advising parents to give their children 100-calorie snacks has sparked a debate about the effects of calorie counting kids’ food.
Public Health England (PHE) introduced a campaign in January 2018 calling for parents to give kids “100 calorie snacks, two a day max”, to encourage healthier snacking.
However national charity Beat believes PHE should have considered the impact the campaign may have on individuals at risk of developing an eating disorder.
“We have heard from parents and treatment providers who cite the promotion of anti-obesity messages to children as a factor in the onset and maintenance of eating disorders,” the charity said in a statement.
“While the campaign is aimed at parents, it is easy to see how it will also engage a younger audience. Encouraging excessive focus on calorie counting could be harmful for young people susceptible to disordered eating.”
However PHE argue that it is hard to tackle the problem of obesity and eating disorders at the same time.
They shared statistics that showed 34% of children aged 10 and 11 years old are overweight and obese, while 1.3% are underweight.
“Our Change4Life campaign helps millions of families make healthier choices,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE. “Every campaign encourages families to eat more fruit and vegetables and use front of the pack labelling to choose healthier foods.
“This campaign responds directly to parents’ concerns and our campaigns are rigorously tested with parents to ensure they provide helpful and practical advice.
“It’s not about counting calories - it’s a simple tip for parents to help change their children’s snacking habits.”
PHE advised those who have, or are worried about others with, eating disorders should seek help from a registered health care professional.
Beat also questioned whether the campaign gave the impression that counting calories of snacks indicated how healthy they are.
“A 100 calorie drink or snack with high levels of processed sugar will not reduce feelings of hunger, whereas many healthy snacks are over 100 calories and can play an important role in a healthy and balanced diet,” Beat argued. “Focusing on calories rather than on healthy and balanced eating is unhelpful.
“We understand there are public health obesity strategies in other countries that have a positive impact on mental wellbeing and reduce the risk of eating disorders. We are investigating these to see whether they could be applicable to the UK.”
Paediatric dietitian Judy More agreed that PHE could have further emphasised the importance of nutritious snacks for children.
“100 calorie snacks will not be suitable for all children,” she said. “I think listing recommended (low sugar, high nutrients) snacks and non-recommended snacks (high sugar, low nutrients) would have been a better way forward.
“I also think one sugary snack per day is better for teeth than two sugary snacks per day. Evidence shows limiting sugar containing foods to four episodes per day (e.g. the three meals and no more than one snack) reduces the risk of dental caries. They seem to have overlooked that research funded by the WHO and carried out in England.”
However, she added that eating disorders are multifactorial and said PHE has a remit to reduce obesity in the UK population and becoming overweight or obese is linked to an excess calorie intake.
“Living in a family where parents or older siblings obsess about calories and weight is not a good environment for a child with the genetic potential to develop an eating disorder,” she told HuffPost UK. “However not every child living in that type of environment goes on to develop an eating disorder.”
For more information on PHE’s healthy eating campaigns for the family, visit their website.