The F word

My gut reaction when my 3 year old used the F word was one of horror. I couldn’t believe my ears, but I guess this sort of thing is inevitable when they start going to nursery school.

“I was playing mummies and babies with x and y in the home corner, and x was making lunch, and we couldn’t have too much or it would make us FAT!”

My first response: my Mummy Poker Face. In my head I was tearing my hair out shouting “nooooooooo!”.  Second response: a light and breezy 1 minute chat about food making you strong.

My second reason for the horror was the thought that the teacher may assume that, as a dietitian, I was teaching my children this nonsense. Following 12 years as a dietitian, I have seen hundreds of people (children and adults) for advice on obesity. Issues around food commonly appear to come from childhood experiences, a parent’s relationship with food and how they relate this to their children. During my time as a paediatric dietitian in the NHS, one particular little girl sticks in my mind. She was about 5 years old and referred to me as she was overweight. The first thing she did when she came in to the clinic room, was to show me her Barbie. She asked if she would ever look like her. I told her nobody looks like Barbie.

Of course, every parent wants their child to eat well, have a diet of good nutritious foods, and be healthy in the long term. We come in all shapes and sizes, skinny does not necessarily mean healthy. Feeding yourself and your child wholesome food, not using food as an emotional crutch, and not feeling GUILTY about nourishing yourself are all crucial in achieving a balanced state of mind. But how do we convey this to our children, particularly our daughters? Is it appropriate to use the F word?  Here is what I have learnt from my time practising as a paediatric dietitian, and as a mum to 3 children:

  • Do not discuss your weight or ‘going on a diet’ within earshot of your children.  Do not discuss any body part that you dislike. Keep any food, body and weight insecurities to yourself.
  • Do not discuss their weight, shape or size in a negative way, even if you are trying to turn it in to a positive eg. “it’s ok if you’re chunky/have baby fat”.
  • Don’t ban any food. It’s ok to have crisps, chocolate, cake etc. as an occasional addition to a regular intake of the ‘healthier’ foods
  • Do not discuss calories, and burning off with exercise. This leads to negative associations between the two. Food should be enjoyed. And exercise should be enjoyed, not a chore or a punishment to ‘work off’ a ‘bad’ food choice.

What should you say?

  • Food provides nutrition to make our bodies strong, fit and healthy
  • Some foods have much more vitamins and minerals than others, it is important that we eat lots of these to give our bodies energy and to keep us well.
  • Bread, potatoes, rice, pasta give us lots of energy for running around, climbing, bouncing, having fun!
  • Veggies and fruit help us to stop getting sick, give us sparkly eyes, shiny hair, and help cuts and grazes to get better
  • Fat is not ‘bad’, some fat is important for our bodies to use the vitamins properly and to help our brains to work
  • Eating a mixture of food gives all the different things our body needs

Tell your children that our bodies are amazing……… about all the awesome things that they can do if they want to: climb a mountain, run a race, do a cartwheel, touch the sky with their feet on a swing.  Help them to love moving, because that is what we are designed for.  “We’ve got to go for a walk because we’ve eaten to much chocolate” is in no way healthy, helpful or positive.

Teach your child how to love fresh air

Teach your child to love movement and exploring new things

Teach your child how to bake a cake using butter, sugar and flour

Teach your child how to chop and cook veggies.

Tell them they are strong, tell them they look happy, tell them they are GLOWING!

Nutrition for Young Athletes

Why a nutritious diet is needed:


  • Normal growth and development
  • Healthy, strong body
  • Energy for everyday activities – school, gymnastics training
  • Repair of muscles following demands and stresses of training and competition

Main components of the diet:



  • as important as food
  • Overheating and dehydration can be dangerous (heat stroke)
  • Low levels of dehydration: reduced strength, stamina, concentration


  • Supply energy for musclesSTARCHY
  • Immunity
  • Growth
  • Focus on wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, fruit, veg
  • Especially important before and after exercise for muscle energy



  • For muscular strength & power, muscle repair & maintenance
  • Focus on lean protein: chicken, fish, eggs,
  • dairy, beans, seeds, nuts

Healthy Fats:

  • Important for healthy heart, nervous system, hormones etc.
  • Focus on healthier fats from olive oil, oily fish eg. Salmon, avocado, peanut butter etc.

Vitamins & Minerals:

  • Calcium – strong bones
  • Iron – needed for blood cells to transport oxygen to muscles
  • Vitamin D – bone development, also implicated in long term health issues
  • B vitamins – energy production & protein metabolism
  • Omega 3 fats – oily fish, for brain development, heart health, vision etc.
  • Generally, supplements not needed if child has varied diet
  • Consider fish oil supplement (omega 3 fats) if intake of oily fish is less than once per week
  • Consider Vitamin D supplement if always wears sunscreen in summer

Pre – exercise fuelling:

  • Aim to have a meal or a substantial snack a few hours before:
    • Pitta/crumpets/toast with jam/honey/peanut butter + milk
    • Jacket potato + tuna/baked beansshutterstock_81803002
    • Baked beans on toast
    • Boiled egg and toast
    • Porridge, milk and raisins/berries
    • Breakfast cereal with milk
    • Bread roll with cheese/meat filling + banana
    • Pasta, rice or noodles with tomato sauce, lean meat eg. chicken, vegetables
  • Up to 1 hour before
    • Fluid for hydration: 200mls fruit juice/water/skimmed milk

 Early morning sessions: If training or competition is first thing in the morning, it is probably not possible to have a meal 3-4 hours before. In these circumstances, have a good meal the night before, then a snack and fluid 1-2 hours pre exercise eg. breakfast cereal and milk, fruit and yoghurt, smoothie or milkshake.

After exercise:

Ensure your child has a snack, or a meal following training. Carbohydrates replenish the muscles with glycogen for energy, while protein repairs and rebuilds muscle tissue. Sports protein shakes or supplements are unnecessary and not advised.

Post-exercise snack ideas (follow within a few hours with a meal):

  • Homemade shake – blend 200ml milk, tablespoon yoghurt, banana, tablespoon honey
  • Low fibre breakfast cereal  eg. Cornflakes/Rice Krispies and milk
  • banana and yoghurt/milk
  • Bread roll or sandwich with cheese/meat/fish filling


It is highly likely that your child will finish training with some degree of dehydration, therefore it is important to replace these fluids as soon as possible after the session. Aim for 200ml fluid with an hour of finishing.

Body image and Disordered Eating

In some sports there is pressure to ‘not get fat’/stay lean or to bulk up to enhance performance Eg. Gymnastics or rugby.

Any such pressure can have the opposite effect – unhealthy eating patterns, restrictive eating (anorexia), or bingeing (bulimia).

Poor nutrition, resulting in weight loss, can cause anaemia, reduction in muscle power and performance, weak bones, poor concentration and increased injury risk

Tips for parents:

  • Do not weigh your child (unless specifically asked to do so for medical reasons)
  • Do not discuss calories or fat, unless raised by your child.  Approach in a positive manner e.g. food gives us energy for exercising and being strong. Healthy fats are important for us to be healthy.
  • Talk about food being nutritious, for making us strong, repairing cuts in our skin, building our muscles, giving energy for running fast etc.

Written by Sarah Danaher, Registered Dietitian, Accredited Sports Dietitian

Registered Dietitians are the only qualified health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat diet and nutrition problems.

If you have any concerns regarding your child’s or family’s diet, then please don’t hesitate to contact me:

07758 100727

Man Versus Food: the trials and tribulations 4000 kcals

1 month ago Dec’s body fat was 13% (reduced from 16% over the three week holiday) and his weight was 101kg. His aim was to increase weight slowly over the next few months for the start of the rugby season. To achieve this:

  • intensive weight lifting schedule, 1-2 sessions/day
  • reduction in running (aerobic) training – burned too many calories, calories needed to build the muscle
  • increase in food calories, aiming for 3600kcal/day

So what do the most recent figures say?

Weight has remained static at 101kg, while fat mass has decreased to 10%, sorry 9.8% (down 3%). This indicates that approximately 3kg of fat has been lost and 3kg of muscle gained. Brilliant, if he was going to pose on the beach all day, however, the men in the driving seat at London Irish, Robbie and Adi, want the weight up! A month ago, using nutrition calculations, his target calorie intake was set at 3600kcal to achieve this weight increase.

Dec’s case illustrates how the ‘textbook’ theory does not always translate in to practise. There are a number of reasons weight has not been increasing. Here are some important points:

  • Weight is static indicating, his body is using up the same calories that he is eating/drinking.
  • Fat is being catabolised (broken down), while weight training is building the muscle. Any extra calories in the body have been used to increase muscle.
  • It is a VERY common phenomenon for food diaries/diet histories to be inaccurate due to misreporting or people changing what they eat either subconsciously/consciously (not necessarily with malicious intent, it’s just human nature). I can verify that Dec has in fact been having 3600kcal (to the point that he is a bit OCD about it).

So in a nutshell, Dec needs to increase his calories even further to gain weight. Adi suggested that Dec increased ‘macros’. Macros is short for macronutrients, a fancy name for carbohydrates, protein and fat. So he just needs to eat more food, about 400kcal more per day. Simple right?

The reality of consuming such a hugh amount of food can be difficult both physically and mentally, not to mention expensive.

Psychologically, it can be very tough for someone who, in the past, has always had to fight hunger for fear of putting on too much weight.

There needs to be a balance between eating ridiculously healthily, and including the less nutritious or ‘treat’ foods in the diet. Unfortunately, as with many other professional sports people, Dec has an ‘all or nothing’ mentality. In the past, if he wanted a chocolate bar, he would go to the shop and return with a Yorkie, a packet of Rolos, a Turkish Delight and a Magnum ice cream. And eat them ALL within an hour. Since improving the quality of his diet, there has been a significant change, for the better, in body composition. In the last 2 months, the apparent healthiness of his diet could also be his downfall, in that it may be preventing him from achieving the desired increase in weight. Dec’s fear is that if he relaxes his diet, he’ll fall back in to the negative behaviour of devouring a whole packet of peanuts or tub of Haagen Dazs. All or nothing.

Despite being a sports dietitian, and obviously ready to give my opinion, and advice, I am wary of being too ‘food police’.  What a nightmare that would be for him (and me), if I was constantly eyeballing what he was eating, and remarking on every morsel. Of course if he wants to we discuss best options, timings, quantities etc. and I help a lot with calculating his intake, but generally I try to back off with my input.

Physically, the shear volume of food/high calorie drinks needs to be fitted in around very intensive training. This morning Dec had fitness testing at 11am, which involved extremely high intensity bursts of running. He cannot have a substantial amount of food sitting in his stomach for this. So he had large breakfast 3-4 hours before to allow time for it to digest, a snack 1-2 hours before, and an easily digestible carbohydrate drink 30 minutes before. Followed by a meal afterwards. The constant need for nutrition is tedious, though something that comes with the job.

So here are some practical solutions for increasing calories in an already food overloaded regimen. Dec came up with most of these himself, most are tweaks to what he already does.

Practical solutions for increasing nutritious calories:

  • thick layer of peanut butter instead of egg with bagel
  • more high calorie snacks, more frequently, so the stomach isn’t too full
  • 2 handfuls of almonds instead of 1 handful
  • banana instead of an apple
  • fruit juice instead of water
  • full fat yoghurt instead of low fat
  • grated cheese on meals
  • tablespoon olive oil in food
  • more regular use a weight gain supplement eg. Kinetica Oat Gain – 2 scoops = 315kcal. Oat Gain Cookies

Here we go again, it’s 3 hours since his last meal. As I sit at the kitchen table typing, he’s here to prepare another 600kcal meal: burger, wrap  and coleslaw. Then it’s off to Sainsbury’s restock the fridge.

The Exercist: Mind the (Thigh) Gap

The following question and response is from an interesting website The Exercist, which is a site focusing on health and body positivity, and strives to myth bust within the fitness community……….

Question from a teenage girl:

Why is a thigh gap attractive? Why is being sickly skinny hot? What is wrong with society, making every one of us teenage girls think that to be beautiful, we must starve ourselves. Some of us aren’t even built to have a god damn thigh gap or have our ribs poking out.

What happened to hot women with curves, not angles?

Please remember that a woman can have a thigh gap without starving herself or being “sickly.” Everyone is built differently – Some people are healthy at a lower weight with wide set hips, while others are healthy at a higher weight with narrow set hips. There is no reason to insult or demean one body type in order to praise another.

There are certainly a lot of problems with the way that society currently promotes one “ideal” body type for women, forcing many people to hurt themselves in an effort to attain that form of beauty. But when preaching for body acceptance and body positive thinking, it’s important to remember that the “ideal” isn’t just a mystical concept – Some people look like that and that’s cool too.

Women can have curves, angles and everything in between.

I fully understand that people can be perfectly healthy and have a thigh gap… Or “sickly skinny”.

But my point is to be happy with WHO YOU ARE.
Not to feel pressured into being skinny or unhealthy. Or a thigh gap.

That’s an awesome mentality to take on – Being happy with who you are is a huge step forward in self-love.

Just be careful with the sort of language that you use – When discussing different body types, it’s important not to associate negative terms and descriptions with certain characteristics. Inherently linking “sickly” with “skinny” is a problem, for example, as is making unfavorable implications about “angles” and “ribs poking out.” Keep in mind that these are not necessarily bad things.

It’s the idealization of thinness that presents a problem, not the body types and physical characteristics themselves.