No doubt parents are well aware of the importance of a healthy diet for their child’s health and wellbeing. Indeed, it is this understanding that drives many parents to nobly battle their kids over the untouched vegetables at the dinner table. And while enjoying adequate vegetables each day is an essential part of healthy eating, the importance of all five food groups in achieving a balanced diet cannot be forgotten and is equally important. Here we explore the latest research which demonstrates that Aussie kids are also falling short of their grain and legume recommendations and provide practical tips for parents to encourage balance with grains and legumes(1, 2).
Are Your Kids Enjoying the Benefits of Core Grains?
Adequate core grain food (i.e. breads, breakfast cereals, crispbreads, rice, pasta and noodles) intake in childhood is important to deliver essential nutrition, support a developing immune system, reduce risk of weight gain and protect against disease in the long term.(3) And just as in adults, these benefits (and more) linked with adequate core grain intakes are most strongly observed when children choose whole grain or high fibre options more often.
The significant contribution of core grain foods to children’s nutrient intakes was recently highlighted with the 2011-12 National Nutrition Survey. The Survey found that these foods were the leading contributors of seven key nutrients in Australians children’s diets, including fibre (essential for digestion and a healthy good balance of bacteria in the gut), carbohydrate (for energy), iron (to help fight fatigue), magnesium (for an active mind), zinc (for a healthy immune system), folate (for growth) and thiamin (for a healthy heart).(1, 4) In fact in the case of fibre, only children who met their daily recommended core grain serves had an average fibre intake which met their minimum daily dietary fibre target(5). This is a striking finding given higher fibre intakes are consistently linked with reduced risk of health problems and disease from an early age(6, 7).
Given their contribution to nutrient intakes and health benefits in children (and adults), it is not surprising that enjoying a wide variety of core grain foods, mostly whole grain or high fibre options - is a universal theme of healthy eating. However, despite dietary recommendations, the recent 2011-12 National Nutrition Survey showed that Australian children’s average intakes of core grain foods across all age and gender groups fell short of the recommended number of daily core grain serves.(1). What is even more alarming is that more recent data from GLNC’s 2014 Consumption Study indicates that since 2011 children’s intake of core grain foods have declined and almost half (48%) of Australian parents (48%) are limiting their children’s intake of core grain food(2). It appears not only are Aussie kids falling short of their core grain food recommendations and declining but there is a lack of awareness of the important nutritional contribution and associated health benefits with adequate core grain food intakes.
To achieve the recommended serves of core grain foods each day, GLNC encourages all Australians, including children to eat core grain foods 3-4 times each day, making at least half as whole grain or high fibre. This means that refined core grain foods, like white bread, white pasta and rice can still be enjoyed by children, as long as other grains in their day are whole grain or high fibre.
Making sure your child starts the day with whole grain or high fibre breakfast choice, such as oats (or wheat breakfast biscuits, a whole grain crumpet or English muffin) is a great start towards achieving the recommendations and choosing whole grain at breakfast has also been shown to boost literacy and numeracy skills (8, 9) as well as improve learning and performance in the classroom.(10, 11) And considering that over 65% of children consuming bread/bread rolls each day(1), another easy step towards better core grain food choices for many children may be to choose whole grain or high fibre breads more often.
A Word on Discretionary Grain Choices
Consumption of discretionary grain foods (i.e. biscuits, cake, pies, bars or pizza that are high in saturated fat, added sugar and/or salt) remains an issue for Australian families, with just over one third (35%) of total energy intake is being consumed as discretionary foods(1). As discretionary foods offer no nutritional benefit and if consumed frequently, may contribute to weight gain(3), these choices are discouraged and can be limited by making simple swaps, e.g. swapping a packet of chips that is high in salt and saturated fat for a more nutritious option such as lite buttered popcorn, or a café styled muffin for a slice of raisin toast. Whilst the number of Australian children consuming discretionary core grain foods has continued to rise in recent years, there is a silver lining, with research showing a decrease in the average amount being consumed by kids each day(2).
Just as Australian children are falling short of core grain food recommendations, most Australians children are not meeting recommendation for legumes - only 1 in every 20 children consume legumes regularly(4, 12). This is despite legumes being fibre and nutrient rich foods and having huge potential to contribute to the health and wellbeing of Australian children, particularly in the early years were legumes can offer a valuable source of protein and iron, a great alternative if getting enough meat is a challenge.
As well as containing essential nutrition, legumes are mostly low glycaemic index (GI) and so have the potential to help kids maintain their energy levels over the day or during active play (13) and impart other health benefits associated with a lower GI diet(14). Given their potential GLNC recommends Australians should aim to enjoy legumes at least 2-3 times per week, but the evidence suggests the more legumes the better in terms of nutrient intake and health outcomes.
To boost children’s intakes of legumes parent are encouraged to incorporate legumes into family meals more often which can be as easy as serving baked beans for breakie or sneaking some red lentils into the spaghetti bolognaise. For practical tips on boosting legume intakes check out GLNC’s Fact sheets Legumes. Tips and tricks to enjoying them more often and Legumes – Start a healthy habit. And if you are looking for some recipe inspiration, Chrissy Freer’s new book ‘Superlegumes – eat your way to great health’ is packed full of recipes to help you kick start this healthy habit in the kitchen.
1. ABS. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results - Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014.
2. GLNC. 2014 Australian Grains and Legumes Consumption and Attitudinal Report. Unpublished: 2014.
3. NHMRC. Australian Dietary Guidelines Providing the scientific evidence for healthier Australian diets. 2013 Accessed online January 2014.
4. CSIRO. Cereal Foods and Legume Consumpton by Australian Children: Secondary Analysis of the 2007 National Children's Nutrition and Physcial Activity Survey 2009.
5. GLNC. Secondary Analysis of the National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey 2011-2012 Unpublished: 2014.
6. Liu L, Wang S, Liu J. Fiber consumption and all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortalities: A systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Molecular nutrition & food research. 2015;59(1):139-46.
7. Yang Y, Zhao L, Wu Q, Ma X, Xiang Y. Association Between Dietary Fiber and Lower Risk of All-Cause Mortality: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. American journal of epidemiology. 2014.
8. Hoyland A, Dye L, Lawton CL. A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents. Nutrition research reviews. 2009;22(2):220-43.
9. O'Dea JA, Mugridge AC. Nutritional quality of breakfast and physical activity independently predict the literacy and numeracy scores of children after adjusting for socioeconomic status. Health education research. 2012;27(6):975-85.
10. Micha R, Rogers PJ, Nelson M. Glycaemic index and glycaemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial. The British journal of nutrition. 2011;106(10):1552-61.
11. Ingwersen J, Defeyter MA, Kennedy DO, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB. A low glycaemic index breakfast cereal preferentially prevents children's cognitive performance from declining throughout the morning. Appetite. 2007;49(1):240-4.
12. Australia. CPHNRFaUoS. 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey: Main findings. Canberra: 2008.
13. Williams PG, Grafenauer SJ, O'Shea JE. Cereal grains, legumes, and weight management: a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence. Nutrition reviews. 2008;66(4):171-82.
14. Rochfort S, Panozzo J. Phytochemicals for Health, the Role of Pulses. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry. 2007;55(20):7981-94.