Processed food: bad for the heart and the wallet

Food purchasing isn’t just about cost. If you don’t consider health factors also, you could end up paying the ultimate price

Keep mealtimes as relaxed as possible and always eat at the table, away from TV and screens – that goes for parents too. Photograph: iStock

Keep mealtimes as relaxed as possible and always eat at the table, away from TV and screens – that goes for parents too. Photograph: iStock


When it comes to matters of the heart, most well-meaning health campaigns tend to target people in middle age and beyond, because they’re the ones most likely to die as a result of a dicky ticker or a stroke.

But a new campaign launched this morning by the Irish Heart Foundation focuses instead on children and on the food they eat and has the noble aim of taking the drama out of dinnertime for all the family.

At the heart of the new drive is the belief that the seeds of many chronic health problems affecting adults have their roots in food habits established in childhood. So if we can stop those bad habits forming, we can save a lot of problems later in life.

It’s hardly shocking that the habits that go on to create heart disease and stroke risk, start in early childhood through a potentially deadly combination of bad diet and a lack of exercise.

What is more shocking is the obesity crisis in Irish children, which has seen a spike in heart disease and other health problems in teenagers who should only have metaphorically broken hearts to fret about. And more shocking still is the fact that children in primary schools are being diagnosed with high blood pressure because of what they eat.

The figures are stark. One in four girls and one in five boys in Ireland is either overweight or obese. It is not hard to see why. Almost 40 per cent of our children eat sweets daily and one in five drinks sugary soft drinks just as frequently. All told, 20 per cent of children’s energy intake comes from sweets, snacks and biscuits, and only 20 per cent of them eat fruit and veg more than once a day.

Health kick

These worrying statistics have prompted the Irish Heart Foundation to launch its campaign aimed at helping parents take the drama out of dinnertime and foster better eating habits in their kids.

As well as a guide to understanding food labels and tips on how to create a better eating environment for kids, there is also a range of child-endorsed and parent- approved healthy recipes.

The campaign strongly advises that we avoid processed food – it’s bad for your family and your wallet – and take sugary treats out of the picture and mind our portion sizes.

“We are seeing trends changing, and strokes are happening in a much younger cohort than used to be the case,” says Janis Morrissey a dietician with the Irish Heart Foundation and one of the drivers of the campaign.

“But we are also seeing high blood pressure in primary-school children and that is down to a poor diet and a lack of exercise.”

She says that while people tend to be fairly well-educated about food, and parents want their kids to be healthy, “We live in a world which effectively promotes ill health and promotes a poor diet. So effectively families are living in a world which is working against them continuously. There is very little to encourage children to be active. There are so few cycleways, for example. And the marketing of sugary foods is relentless and food labels are made very confusing.”

So what do parents need to do?

They need to relax for a start and not beat themselves up if their offspring won’t eat their broccoli or their hearty chicken stew. The campaign points out that there is no point in going toe-to-toe with your children at every mealtime. Adopting a gentler approach delivers better results. “Parents need to look at the big picture and not get too worked up if a child doesn’t eat their vegetables at one meal,” Morrissey says. “Look at the pattern over the course of a whole week.”

One of the best pieces of advice in the booklet is simple; if parents want to limit the amount of sugary treats their kids eat, they should limit the amount they buy.

When Pricewatch was young, the only time we ever saw soft drinks was at Christmas. We craved chocolates, crisps and all the rest as much as any other child, but we knew they were not likely to be found in our house. We got over it.

Water and milk are best for children – and low-fat milk has all the nutrients kids over two years of age need. Children have small stomachs, so it’s hard for them to get enough nutrients from three meals alone. Small, frequent meals and healthy snacks spaced throughout the day help to ensure a steady stream of goodness.

Kids need child-sized portions. Look at the palm of your little one’s hand – the width and depth without fingers and thumb – that is all the meat, poultry or fish they need in a day. Use a smaller plate or bowl for them and give them smaller portions at first and let them ask if they are still hungry for more.

The Irish Heart Foundation also offers guidance on how to see through the sometimes misleading marketing tricks used by brands. “Fat-free” or “Reduced sugar” don’t always mean healthy, and knowing how to read food labels is essential too.

Salt comes as sodium, sodium chloride, or monosodium glutamate (MSG), to name but a few, while fats can be listed as butter, butter milk, dripping, lard, milk fat, vegetable oil, peanut oil, vegetable, fat or glycerides.

Sugars can be dressed up as sucrose, glucose, syrup, golden syrup, maple syrup, treacle, invert sugar, honey, fructose, dextrose, maltose. They don’t satisfy appetite as well as other foods, are high in calories and are linked to heart disease, excess weight in children, type-two diabetes and dental decay.


1 It’s normal for children to go through a phase of saying no to foods they previously ate. It’s often an attempt to get attention. Don’t panic. Even limited diets for a few weeks can deliver all the nutrients your child needs. A varied diet can be achieved over the course of a day or even a week.

2 Only buy the foods you want them to eat. The supermarket shop is something you have complete control over; you’re the gatekeeper. If pester power from your little (or not so little) ones is too hard to resist, try to leave them at home while you shop for a few weeks.

3 It’s well-proven that we should never use food as a reward for good behaviour or as a punishment for bad behaviour. We can’t substitute it for time and attention. And we shouldn’t use food as a way to calm children when they’re angry, tired or bored.

4 Don’t say “If you finish your dinner, you can have some biscuits/sweets.” This encourages kids to think that the main course is something to be endured while sweets are the ‘prize’ worth waiting for.

5 It may be harder than trying to herd cats at first, but do try to eat together as a family as often as possible. And always praise your kids (and yourself) if they try something new.

6 “Food neophobia” is an unwillingness to try new foods, and most kids experience this to some degree. If your child is afraid to try, say, chicken, then keep offering it to him/her cooked or presented in different ways. If they don’t eat it the first time or subsequent times, don’t panic. It can take up to 10 tries before they’ll try something new.

7 To encourage your child to try new foods, you can try using peer pressure in a positive way. Invite a friend – with a good appetite – for dinner and offer the same food to them both. Your kid may be more tempted to eat whatever their friend is eating.

8 It’s good to encourage your children to realise when they are full. So it’s not a good idea to send out the message that they have to finish everything on their plate. If they always have to “clear the plate” they may lose their natural ability to regulate their appetite and soon they’ll struggle to recognise when they are genuinely full.

9 Keep mealtimes as relaxed as possible and always eat at the table, away from TV and screens – that goes for parents too.

Praise children when they eat healthy foods. If you start getting stressed, take a break from the table. Once you start showing your frustrations, you’re providing them with attention, and even this negative attention will make it more likely that they’ll repeat the behaviour. While it’s important that your child try new foods, be very careful not to get too obsessed with this.

10 Is there a pattern to when or why children look for unhealthy foods? Most of us have specific triggers for unhealthy behaviour, such as getting a large popcorn and fizzy drink every time we go to the cinema, regardless of whether we are hungry or not. Once you know your family’s triggers, you can think of alternatives.

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