Junk food, or 'soul food' as we like to call it here at HNK, can bring up many emotions within us. Even just saying the words can feel uncomfortable for many, let alone deciding how our kids are exposed to foods of minimal nutritional value.
For many of us, junk food can be such a difficult topic to navigate because at the heart of it all is a parent wanting to make the best decision for their child's health and wellbeing. And as a mother myself, I understand.
What is junk food?
As mentioned above, at HNK and in our home we like to refer to any foods that provide minimal nutritional value as 'soul food'. To better understand this, think about the last time you had a slice of cake. Perhaps you were celebrating with friends or family - the cake might not provide nutritional value, but it was likely a part of a celebration that was good for the soul. By changing up the labelling of food we can remove negative associations, fear, and GUILT and instead enjoy the food (and environment) for what it is and move on. We use 'soul food' to describe these foods because I believe health is holistic and that our relationship with food is JUST as important to our overall health (including our mental health) as the food we eat.
Should we give junk food (soul food) to our kids?
This is where the research gets really interesting! The reality is, try as we might our children WILL be exposed to foods with minimal nutritional value at some point in their lives, whether from us, through friends and extended family or through media. And when they are exposed to this food, they will likely enjoy it (because it's made to taste good), creating a really difficult conundrum for parents to navigate.
Children under the age of two without siblings are less likely to be aware of foods they are not exposed to and DO require nutritionally valuable foods to support their rapid growth. Therefore, in line with current dietary guidelines it makes sense to hold off from introducing foods with minimal nutritional value (such as lollies and cordial to name a few) to children under the age of two (or for as long as reasonable).
But should we avoid introducing foods with minimal nutritional value altogether? Let's look at the evidence:
Firstly, one of the top predictors of fruit and vegetable consumption in childhood is a parent's fruit and vegetable consumption. The inclusion of family meals and serving a variety of foods from the five food groups each day are important predictors of positive eating habits and health, with benefits withstanding time. It is undeniable that a diet rich in whole foods is important for longevity and disease prevention.
However, it's not always as simple to navigate in real life. In real life, most of us are exposed to party foods, highly processed foods and 'soul foods' almost every day whether at the supermarket, out with friends, watching TV or even driving to and from activities!
When we look at the evidence, total restriction of food with minimal nutritional value doesn't appear to be the answer. A study concluded that restriction of snack foods predicted higher intake of snack foods in girls aged 3-5 years. Similarly, a laboratory study found that restricting children's access to foods they enjoyed (sweets as an example) increased their desire for and intake of these foods. Further, a study found children of parents who restricted unhealthy snack foods were significantly more likely to eat these foods when available.
And in relation to disordered eating, one study concluded that binge eating and dietary restraint in adulthood was significantly related to participants' recollection of their parents using food to control their behaviour in childhood (think phrases such as 'clean your plate', 'eat your dinner and then you can have dessert').
Enter 'prudent restriction'. This term, often used in nutrition practice, highlights the importance of nutritionally valuable foods (the five food groups) while understanding children are exposed to foods outside of the five food groups. Prudent restriction refers to keeping the home or majority of a child's meals a source of mostly nutritionally valuable foods from the five food groups and allowing unrestricted access (excluding allergies, intolerances, safety or budget considerations) to food of minimal nutritional value in certain situations, such as at parties or in situations where a child may be naturally exposed to these foods. Prudent restriction might look different for different families - for example some families may choose a specific meal or day of the week to include foods that provide minimal nutritional value but plenty of enjoyment while others may choose to include dessert or treat like foods alongside regular meals rather than as a reward for eating (an approach that can be beneficial for families who would like to change habits around dessert and food as a reward).
As a family, we have decided on an approach that allows our children to be exposed to foods with minimal nutritional value regularly based on the evidence available. Our approach as a family is to include 'tuck shop Friday' where our school aged children get free-choice of 1-2 items (because cost is another important consideration) from tuck shop every Friday, regardless of behaviour and not as a reward. It's just tuck shop Friday. And interestingly the longer our kids have had independent choice for this meal, the more nutritionally valuable their choices have been! For our younger child, we enjoy a 'babychino' (with marshmallows) 1-2 times per week and again, because it's so predictable for our older children they sometimes say 'no thank you' when offered. Every 1-2 weeks we might order out or get an ice cream or ice block at the beach as a family and while we tend to choose places that do provide nutritionally valuable choices, sometimes we choose places (or attend parties) with minimal nutritional value and we enjoy it without guilt. Should we attend parties, our children get free choice and we have food-body conversations if and when necessary.
To conclude, there appears to be evidence FOR some consistent and predictable exposure to 'soul food' for our children when we look at health holistically. When we include our relationship with food as a measure of health, occasional soul food has a place.
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Eat for Health. Infant Feeding Guidelines: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/files/the_guidelines/n56_infant_feeding_guidelines_summary_160822.pdf - Accessed 9 Feb 2021.
Hammons, A.J. and Fiese, B.H. (2011). Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents? Pediatrics:127: e1565–e1574.
Holley, C.E., Farrow, C. and Haycraft, E. (2017). A Systematic Review of Methods for Increasing Vegetable Consumption in Early Childhood. Current Nutrition Reports, 6 (2) 157-170.
Puhl, Schwartz. If you are good you can have a cookie: How memories of childhood food rules link to adult eating behaviors. Eating Behaviors, 4:3 (2003), 283-293.