This week I met 4000 young Transition Students at the inaugural ‘HealthFest 2016.’  Organised by the National Dairy Council and Safefood, the event has been developed to provide knowledge and motivation for Transition Year students about healthy eating and physical activity in an engaging way. The Zumba really did look fun.

I spoke about snacking. In my time there was no such thing as snacking. There wasn’t a snacking industry. We more of less had a routine; three meals a day, maybe a cereal or some toast for supper if we were hungry or very active.

When we went to school, they were no vending machines, no tuck shops. There was no corner shops selling fried fast foods, the petrol stations only sold diesel and petrol.

Today we eat on average 2-3 snacks here in Ireland and in the UK according to Bord Bia research.

The students at Healthfest (16 years plus) are the highest consumers overall. Many of them make their own decisions about what to snack on and when. They choose and buy snacks themselves frequently. It’s possibly convenient (not requiring much preparation if any) and they’re portable or hand held.

But lots of snacking takes place at home too. We don’t just eat ‘on the go’ or ‘on impulse’. In fact 7 out of 10 snacks are purchased at the supermarket as part of a larger or weekly shop. Deliberately purchased, these make up part of the family shop.

Our snacking occurs relatively evenly throughout the day with a slight peak at mid afternoon – about the time school finishes. Research highlights the most favourite snacks are 1. confectionary (21%), 2. crisps (15%) and 3. fruit (only 12%).

Interestingly – we don’t really consider ‘drinks’ to be snacks. Yet the research shows us that 42% of all snacks are accompanied by a drink.

Bord Bia’s research estimates we spend about 2 euro on a snack, so if the 4000 students at Healthfest had on average 2 snacks a day the market value would be close to 6 million euro for the year. Think of what the size of the market would be for the island of Ireland! Now hopefully some entrepreneurs out there might be thinking – Hmmmmm now there’s an opportunity! And that’s quite true. We need more innovation and competition for sure, in healthier snack ranges.

Snacks of course are separate to meals. If you snack smart and make clever choices you can boost your energy levels and enhance your nutrition and health.

On the other hand snacks can be something we grab and can be eaten purely out of habit. If we eat too many indulgent sugary and fatty snacks we displace or knock out essential nutrition from meals and become overweight and unhealthy. Snacks replace the nourishment necessary to grow to our full height and reach our full potential both in terms of our studies and our favourite sport.

Unfortunately bad snacking choices can have both short and long term consequences. You don’t need to eat a perfect diet all of the time but its good to know how much sugar you eat vs how much you really need.

A teenage girl or a pretty sedentary boy needs about 2000kcals. Only 5% of which should be added sugar according to the World Health Organisation. This is about 6 teaspoons sugar (25g). I’m afraid this is not a lot and many teenagers exceed it.

Why? Because sugar is added to so many foods. It’s estimated that added sugar is found in approx. 80% of processed foods in the US. However companies won’t make foods we don’t eat so this trend is reversible but it requires us all to really think about our food choices and to choose better snack options in supermarkets and when we’re out and about.

Sugar is found not just in foods. It’s also in drinks. Do you know how much sugar is in your favourite drink? A 500ml serving of some of these drinks can contain twice the recommended sugar for the day.

Water is calorie and sugar free. A 200ml glass of milk contains about 10g sugar but this is not the sugar the WHO wants us to cut out. This natural sugar found in milk and dairy (called lactose) is not the issue. Your glass of milk can be enjoyed as one of your three –five dairy a day as it contains protein and calcium, phosphorous and some B vitamins. It’s a matrix of nutrients important for bone health. Remember 90% of the adult skeleton is formed by age 18.

Orange juice has more sugar and in general the recommended intake of juice is only 100ml (tiny) as there may be some vitamins but there is no fibre in juice. Other juice drinks are largely water and sugar mixes. The soft drinks come in larger 500ml servings so it’s easy to see how the teaspoons of sugar add up.

And then there is the latest trend in drinks – energy drinks. This drinks section has exploded with formulas enticing you with promises of ‘Monster Energy’. Even though there is no agreed definition of what an energy drink is, ‘they are soft drinks with a high percentage of sugar, caffeine or other stimulants, typically consumed as a way of over coming tiredness’ according to a recent Safe food report. It seems they contain a ridiculous amount of sugar. For example the Monster Energy drink contains twice as much as the daily recommended intake and has the same amount of stimulant as not one but two espressos? Who on earth needs that at 16 years old?

Of course there’s nothing wrong with some sugar now and then. It’s how much we eat that’s the issue. Choosing mini treats occasionally is fine but the sugar habit can grow and unhealthy levels are bad for the body and brain. Down size don’t supersize.

We are all aware of the rising obesity levels but the brain too can be affected by too much sugar. When we reward ourselves with sugary foods and drinks the pleasure centre of the brain lights up and dopamine is released.

If you want to know what a dopamine rush feels like just close your eyes and think about someone you love, it may be a pet, or a tasty food, or the day you won that cup – anything else that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy. When you really get lost in the detail, you may even start smiling. That’s because your recollection and memory triggered a dopamine rush in your brain!

Our sugar habit can become hardwired in the brain so that we repeat the behaviour that gives us the dopamine rush but with awareness we have the choice to change. We can make conscious decisions that can change our habits and our rewards systems.

But we need to be awake to change our habits, we need to be aware and not on automatic pilot.

We also need to note – who is selling us what? There are multi-million dollar businesses out there promoting products, even thoughts/beliefs and lifestyles – deliberately.

Learning to think for your self is a hugely important life skill when you’re young, and it’s more of a challenge now than ever before to shift through and determine what is real and worthwhile and what isn’t.

Social Media is NOT real life. It can mislead. Essena O’Neill, a model on Instagram, recently quit and talked about the unhealthy aspect of Instagram. How ‘it is a lie’. She described the hundreds of photos she had to take daily in trying to choose the one for Instagram. She wouldn’t eat for two days before a shoot just to get the best shot. The more she focused on looking good, the more unhealthy she became.  So question the fad diets , the supplements, the tonics and take it all with a pinch of salt. Try to establish who the real experts when it comes to advice about what you put into your body and brain.

Safefood and the INDI are two trusted bodies providing evidence based advice when it comes to food – what sort of snack boost your energy, prevents fatigue on the pitch, helps you recover after training. You’ll find plenty of information and ideas on snacking on both websites.

What you eat can make a huge difference to your mind and body.

Put some power on your plate students and get the nutrients you need, to help you;

  • reach your full height.
  • develop strong and healthy bones.
  • develop your muscle mass.
  • keep your teeth strong and healthy.
  • be the right weight for your height.
  • keep your skin, hair and nails healthy.
  • perform to your full potential at sport

Eat well, look well, feel well! 


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