I’ve recently come back from a trip to Vietnam with my two boys. The boys are 12 and 9 now, and as my husband didn’t seem very keen on the idea of Vietnam, I thought this would be the perfect first Asian trip for me and the boys to do on our own.
I’d never been to Vietnam before and I loved it. The people were so friendly, and it’s a really beautiful country. But the food – oh, the food! We did a couple of street food tours with guides, so that we could get an idea of what the locals eat and where the good places to eat it were. Luckily, my boys are pretty adventurous eaters, so we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
When we got back to Australia, my twelve year old said to me that he’d put on 2kgs. Normally, that wouldn’t grab my attention, but I happened to see him with his tshirt off and could see that he’d put every bit of that 2kgs on around his stomach.
To put this into perspective, my son is almost as tall as me now, and weighed 44kgs before we went on holiday. He knew this, because he’s doing personal fitness in his first year of high school this year, and staying at a healthy weight is one of the things they measure. He does some kind of sport every single day, and he’s an ideal weight for his height – no fat anywhere, and you can see his ribs. A doctor told me a recently how good it was to see children with visible ribs in this age of overweight children.
So for my son to put 2kgs on in two weeks, and for him to have fat on his belly, was enough to grab my attention.
My children call me the Food Nazi, because I’m always banging on about eating well and reading labels. My son is very aware of what’s healthy and what’s not, even if he doesn’t always agree with me on how often we should eat it.
We started talking about the food we’d eaten in Vietnam. No junk food, the occasional fried spring roll and fried noodle dish, but mostly a very similar diet to what we eat at home. Lots of veggies, salads, wholefoods and good protein. The difference was me relaxing my usually very rigid rules on sweet stuff.
It was very hot while we were there, over 30 degrees every day and up to 85% humidity. We all drank heaps of water every day, and stopped for rests every couple of hours. When you’re drinking so much water anyway, I find that you want a different kind of drink when you stop for a rest. Fruit smoothies are fabulous in Vietnam. They’re made with fresh fruit and milk or yoghurt, as well as a bit of condensed milk or sugar syrup. We were having a couple of those each per day. (For the record, my new favourite is avocado and banana, which is surprisingly delicious.)
Thanks to the French influence, ice cream is very popular and incredibly good. I’m not much of an ice cream fan, but the boys had an ice cream each at least every other day. Desserts and patisseries are popular, too, thanks again to the French, and we stumbled across more than one sensational bakery with yummy cakes to share.
Fresh fruit is amazing in Vietnam, too. We were eating watermelon, papaya, banana, passionfruit and dragonfruit every morning for breakfast. Some places even had chiffon cake for breakfast, again in the French style.
Most evenings after dinner, we’d wander around in the cooler evening temperatures, and stop in one of the fabulous coffee shops for an iced chocolate for the boys and a beer for me.
All this sweet stuff is not normally how we’d eat, but I figured we were on holidays and I could relax my usually strict food rules.
Talking it over with my son, we realised that it was all the sweet treats we’d been scoffing that had made both of us put on a couple of kilos each. My son, who will often argue with me over my food rules, even went so far as to admit that not only had he put on weight, but he felt terrible. Tired, lethargic and generally off colour. Again, very unusual for him.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this. I go on so much about eating good food and keeping the sugar intake down that I’d almost stopped listening to myself. It’s like picking up dirty socks and emptying the dishwasher: just one more thing that I hassle the kids about.
The World Health Organisation released a report in March this year, recommending that adults limit their free sugar intake to 6 teaspoons per day. Free sugars are sugars naturally present in things like honey, maple syrup, and fruit juices, as well as sugar and sweeteners added to foods by manufacturers and home cooks. Free sugar doesn’t include the sugars in fruits and vegetables or milk.
The rule in my house is 2 teaspoons of added sugars per day. When you consider that a can of soft drink can contain 11 teaspoons of sugar, it’s clear that it’s pretty easy to go over that 2 teaspoons per day.
Most days, however, we manage to keep our sugar intake to that 2 teaspoons per day. It’s taken a while, but changing how we shop and what we eat have made us change our habits.
Here’s how I keep my children’s sugar intake down:
- maximum two pieces of fruit a day
- one teaspoon of honey, golden syrup, maple syrup, jam, etc., at breakfast
- one small cupcake (I make my own, and always reduce the sugar to 1/3 of the amount in the recipe)
- no processed cereals, only oats
- no juices, no soft drinks
- no processed foods (aside from the occasional squirt of tomato sauce or sweet chilli sauce)
- no shop bought biscuits, lollies or cakes in the house
- only dark chocolate in the house for treats
- no ice cream or icy poles in the freezer
- no packaged bread, only no added sugar sourdough from our local farmer’s market
About four months ago now, I stopped going to the supermarket. I realise that it’s a big step, and we’re lucky to have very good farmer’s markets near us, and the means to be able to shop at them. However, I’ve worked out that we actually save money by not shopping at the supermarket. All those little treats that we used to add to the shopping trolley, the biscuits, the chips, the chocolate bars – you can’t get them at a farmer’s market. Those treats are not only expensive, they’re bad for you, too.
If we want a sweet treat, we have to make it. My husband and I both work full time, so we don’t always get the time to make a batch of brownies or cupcakes to pop in the freezer. When we do get the time, we make sure that we cut the sugar down by at least a half, and we cut them into small portions.
If we don’t have anything in the freezer, we have a piece of fruit instead. Or we have a small piece of dark chocolate. It was hard at first, but it’s surprisingly easy to get used to.
My children are used to having something sweet after dinner, and they know that they can have something sweet out of the freezer, a small piece of chocolate, or the occasional contraband sweet that makes it’s way into the cupboard thanks to grandparents and children’s party bags. The two teaspoons of sugar a day rule means that they don’t miss out on things entirely, and having a choice (albeit a limited one) means that they still feel in control.
The big test was my youngest son’s birthday party recently. After a couple of rounds of laser tag at a local place, all the kids came back to our place for eats and more playtime. I did chopped vegetables and dips; homemade salted butter popcorn; plain organic corn chips; watermelon, strawberries and blueberries; sausages in bread rolls; and homemade reduced sugar cupcakes with a fresh cream and strawberry topping.
For drinks, I had big jugs of fruit water on the table. Kids and adults alike loved them. Not only did I not hear any complaints about the lack of sweet stuff, everything was demolished in record time.
And the kicker for me? Ten days after we got back from Vietnam and resumed our normal low sugar diet, both my sons and I had lost all the weight we’d put on, and were back to our normal, high energy selves.