Public Health England launches a Change4Life campaign every January. This year the focus is on ways that parents can encourage their children to eat less sugar. Teaming up with Netmums and Reading University they asked 50 families to help them understand the difficulties and impact of making small simple SugarSwaps in the diet. Myself and my family took part, and were compensated, in the SugarSwaps challenge but this is a true reflection of our experiences. This information was then utilised to help provide support, encouragement and practical advice for making simple SugarSwaps at key occasions in the day such as with drinks, at breakfast, after school snacks and puddings.
What the SugarSwaps involved
The research started on Thursday 23rd October, and for 2 weeks the whole family had to individual keep a log of everything they ate and drank at specific times of the day (breakfast, lunch, after school snacks, dinner and other snacks). During the second week we were told what the SugarSwaps would be so that we could plan our shopping. In weeks 3 and 4 the family made the SugarSwaps; and in weeks 5 and 6 we were under no obligation to use the swaps. For all 6 weeks the information was entered online. There was also a support forum on Netmums and plenty of help and advice on the Change4Life website, as well as from the other families in the research. We were also asked to record how difficult we felt it was on a scale of 1-10, and any problems we incurred.
Why I volunteered myself and my Family
I know myself that cutting back on sugar can make such a difference. I used to have 3 sugars in my tea and drink a lot of coke. I dropped 3 dress sizes by cutting these out of my diet. My children’s health is something that is really important to me and I know how changes I have made since I grew up have made a real difference (like not adding salt). I wanted to see where we could further improve by making simple SugarSwaps.
“Warburtons have conducted some research which shows that as a nation we no longer consider breakfast to be the most important meal of the day as one in five parents (20%) admit that their average weekday breakfast consists of pastries, chocolate and even crisps. 43% of children start each school day with a sugary breakfast. Research also show the public are confused on the benefits of carbohydrates and by refined grains, and instead one in five choose foods for breakfast which are high in sugar and /or fat. New donation packs of Warburtons wholemeal hit shelves nationwide from 19th Jan to 20th Feb, and for every loaf sold, 5p, will be donated to the British Heart Foundation (BHF) as part of Warburtons pledge to raise £1million and help keep British families hearts healthy.”**
I was actually surprised to see that we didn’t actually have that many SugarSwaps to make. We already have low sugar squash, water, or semi-skimmed milk. We had previously tried skimmed milk and decided it was not for us. If we have fizzy drinks it is usually a treat using the Sodastream. We do not have after school snacks and puddings only on Sundays. I was really surprised to discover that our breakfast cereal was so high in sugar – as it was preserving fruit. We also use quite a few of the after-school snacks as lunchbox fillers. We were also surprised that our portion sizes were much bigger than we thought they would be (showing that we are clearly over-eating).
Resistance to Change
I think that everyone is quite stuck in their ways, especially when it comes to food. But having a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome and a 5 year old with Sensory Processing Disorder and Christmas approaching, then I feel that the task of making the SugarSwaps was even more difficult. I think that telling them that it was just for 2 weeks made it much easier to get them to try. I did find it interesting that the children wanted sweets more when they could have them again – but this is because Halloween is one of the few times they have sweets (and just a few at a time) so it was quite hard to have them in the house and not be allowed them.
Keeping things in routine is easy, making changes are hard. We all are guilty of making excuses so that we can just carry on as we are. One of the excuses we found was going out – whether that was peer pressure with friends (I mean it’s a given to eat sugary things at the cinema with friends), or embarrassment (asking the waiter for tap water just looks tight). Time and energy is another big excuse – the supermarkets didn’t seem to make it easy – for example when looking at packed lunches or the convenient yoghurts were high in sugar. We had to think of new ideas. We tried fruit in tins to stop it going off – but because they are not so convenient to pick up and take out of the house they did not really get used. Again options to eat healthily when out weren’t that clear. Things took longer to prepare and cost more money. Of course sometimes it was harder to control – like the fact the younger 2 boys were offered sugary puddings every weekday as part of their free school meal.
I think the children found it really difficult because they felt they had a much more limited choice. It was hard on our son with Sensory Processing Disorder as he has a limited palate as it is. He did not like the swaps offered and so we had to think outside the box. He loves pancakes but these take longer to make in the morning, but he was happy to have fruit. We have since discovered that he loves scrambled egg – so it has been great for getting more protein into his diet and expanding his tastes.
The children did not like the plain yoghurt option (all except from the teen who would eat it with fruit) but again this was not practical for taking into school. We have stopped buying our “fruit” cereal now as the whole reason we bought it was because we thought that it was good for us – and it is clearly not.
When no desirable swap was suggested it seems the family were just going without instead. This lead to everyone being low on energy, depressed and snappy. The children normally ask for everything but were found to be stealing sweets (that they wouldn’t normally have) and even eating milkshake powder straight from the tub.
Clearer in Supermarkets
We were disappointed to find something we thought was what was meant by a swap possibly was wrong (a wholemeal biscuit) as when we actually looked at the packet it was full of sugar. I think supermarkets have a duty to make not only labelling a lot clearer, but whole sections of the store about which products actually are good for you. I found that low salt/sugar nuts were in a completely different section of the supermarket. The staff told me they were for cooking with but we have been eating them just fine as they are. I think that there should also be less of a discrepancy between the prices of foods with and without sugar.
I already knew that we should be eating more fruit and vegetables. I found that both during and since as a family we have upped our vegetable and fruit intake. The younger boys like to have an after school fruit snack (as we eat as a family when everyone is home). Meal planning has been a big factor in helping our diet, as well as relying on the freeze more. We are eating a lot more frozen vegetables to keep the convenience factor part of the equation. If you are going to buy tinned fruit make sure that it is in juice and not syrup.
Advice for families signing up for SugarSwaps
My advice is to register for a free SugarSwaps pack (filled with hints, tips, recipe suggestions and money off vouchers) and sign up for the e-mail and text service. Tell your family to just try the swaps for a short period of time. Check labels for hidden sugar. Make a shopping list and do not put the high sugar products on it – but make sure you have alternatives available. Think about what your families’ excuses might be beforehand and find ways to combat them. Make it fun. Have a good look at ways you can change how you feel about food – and certain foods at certain times of day (ie porridge makes a good snack at whatever time). Join the Change4Life Facebook community for further ideas and support.
I was financially compensated for the research but these are all my own honest opinions.
** The words in ” ” have been provided for me.