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Probably the most widely-used term in childhood nutrition, this mantra is confusing at best and dangerous at worst. Here's why it needs to go, and what better phrase we can use instead.

The phrase “everything in moderation” is used an awful lot amongst parents.

In one of the baby led weaning Facebook groups I’ve joined, this mantra pretty much seems to override all other guidelines.

New mums join the group and ask questions about what they should or shouldn’t be feeding their little one, and apart from honey and whole nuts, everything else seems to fall under the umbrella of "everything in moderation"...

Q: “Can I give my baby Nutella in her porridge for breakfast?”

A: “Yes, everything in moderation."

Q: "My 11 month old just screamed at me because he hasn't got what my other two have (Strawberry Nesquik). Would it be alright?"

A: "It won't do any harm in moderation"

Q: “If I make these porridge bars with golden syrup instead of honey, are they ok to give to my 6 month old?”

A: “Yes, as long as it’s not honey - I always say everything in moderation”

The NHS website says that children under the age of 4 should "avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it."

Presumably, that would include Nutella, Nesquik and golden syrup but it seems a lot of mums are prepared to ignore this advice, under the sacred mantra of "everything in moderation".

What's The Problem With "Everything in Moderation?"

Don't get me wrong, this mantra has good intentions...

We just want to help children develop a healthy relationship with food, right?

We want them to try everything without feeling guilty or punishing themselves for eating "naughty foods", right?

But we also don't want them become dependent on any unhealthy foods and suffer the consequences to their health, right?

There's nothing wrong with the aim of this philosophy.

The crimes are in the words and meanings.

Let's take a look at the suspects...

Suspect 1: The Word "Everything"

Crime: Inaccuracy

Quite simply, "EVERYTHING" is not suitable for babies, whether it's in moderation or not!

Whatever your opinion about salt and sugar, I think I can safely say we're all agreed on the following...

  • Whole nuts are not ok for babies

  • Honey is not ok for babies

  • Marshmallows are not ok for babies

  • Gobstoppers are not ok for babies

  • Coffee is not ok for babies

  • Alcohol is not ok for babies

  • Red Bull is not ok for babies

So by saying "everything is ok in moderation", what we actually mean is, "everything except whole nuts, honey, marshmallows, gobstoppers, coffee, alcohol and energy drinks is ok for babies".

So... not everything then.

Saying "everything" when we really don't mean everything is entirely unhelpful for parents trying to work out what they're supposed to feed their babies.

Suspect 2: The Word "Moderation"

Crime: Being Too Subjective!

How much is a "moderate" amount?!

One spoonful per day?

A little taste once a month?

The definition changes depending on who you're asking.

Whilst one mum might see a “moderate” amount of sugar as having something sweet once a week, another might see it as a having a bit of sugar in every meal.

I recently watched a group of mums going at it over this exact issue in a US-based BLW Facebook group:

Mum A: "So far, my 6 month old has eaten banana, french fries, chicken nuggets, purées, bagel and pancakes. Is this ok for him to have for dinner?" (Picture shows a box of Kraft unicorn-shaped mac & cheese)

Mum B: "It is recommended not to give babies under 2 years old anything processed or has lots of salt and sugar content. Obesity and Diabetes type 2 are knocking at the door."

Mum C: "My children wouldn't eat anything then."

Mum D: "Everything is okay in moderation"

Mum E: "My meals are mostly frozen "processed" meats and my kids are thriving greatly"

Mum F: "You may not think this has an effect on them now but just wait as the grow. ADHD, ADD, autoimmune disease, eczema, cancer... I could go on. The crap they put in processed food is ridiculous and the problems it could cause at a later date."

Mum G: "I was raised on McDonald’s and hot pockets. I’m doing pretty good."

Mum F: "Just because you think it's healthy and ok doesn't mean it is. Statistics, facts, research go a long way."

I think we've all seen enough Facebook-wall arguments like this to know you're never going to change the mind of someone with a totally opposing opinion on the internet!

But as long as we keep using utterly subjective words such as "moderate" as a guideline for how much of anything a child ought to eat and how often they should have it, the topic will remain open to opinion and arguments like this will continue.

So What's The Solution?

What can we say instead of "everything in moderation", to give parents more confidence in their decisions?

Prescribing a specific amount would help.

The NHS are happy to do this once kids get to 4 years old - their website currently advises that: "Children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g of free sugars a day".

That's easy - we can all read the nutritional information on foods and quickly work out how much they're allowed.

But for children under 4, they just say "there's no guideline limit". They simply "recommend" that "sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it" should be avoided.

For one mum, "food with sugar added to it" might mean a bowl of cereal sprinkled with sugar.

For another, the bowl of cereal itself would be too much sugar.

For one mum, "sugar-sweetened drinks" might mean a can of Coca-Cola, but they think fruit juice is fine because the bottle tells them it's just "natural" sugars from fruit.

For another, the fruit juice is far too sugary.

It's just too open to interpretation.

Forget "Everything in Moderation" and Focus on Long Term Habits

To reach some level of agreement here, I think we have to focus on the long game.

What is our ultimate aim for our children?

Let's look again at the original intentions of the mantra...

We want to help our children develop a healthy relationship with food - one that allows them to try everything without feeling guilty, but helps them avoid becoming dependent on anything unhealthy.

So the aim is is to raise adults who can enjoy all foods without becoming addicted.

The nature of an addiction is not about how much of something you have - it's about your behaviour in relation to that thing.

One person might drink five coffees one day, but feel absolutely fine if they have to go without the following day.

Another person might drink three coffees every day, religiously, and have a total meltdown if they can't have any.

The amount they're drinking is less, but their behaviour around coffee shows signs of dependence.

So, when you're deciding whether or not to allow your baby to have a “less healthy” food, don't just assess the quantity you're offering.

Instead, consider whether the WAY you’re offering it is likely to lead to a childhood habit which may, in turn, develop into an adult addiction.

Let’s take sugar as an example - what would an adult sugar addiction look like?

  • Waking up craving something sweet

  • Needing to have something sweet every time you eat

  • Adding sugar to all your drinks - sugar in your coffee, cordial in your water, fruit juice at breakfast, cans of pop etc.

  • Not being able to go a whole day without having something sweet

  • Feeling deprived or cranky when you’ve not had your sugar hit

What would a healthy relationship with sugar look like for an adult?

  • Not feeling a need or regular craving for sweetness

  • Being able to go a whole day with no sweet foods without feeling deprived or cranky

  • Having a savoury meal without feeling the need to follow it up with dessert

  • Enjoying an indulgent dessert occasionally but...

  • Stopping when you’re full instead of demolishing the whole cake and...

  • Not feeling guilty afterwards for succumbing to a craving.

So when we're deciding whether or not to give our children some sugar, simply run through these checklists and ask yourself which scenario it's likely to lead to?

  • Is it likely to make them expect something sweet every morning?

  • Is it likely to make them want something sweet with every meal?

  • Will it make them want all their drinks to be sweet and potentially put them off unsweetened drinks?

  • Are you creating a need for something sweet on a daily basis?

Apply this logic to the questions asked by our mums at the beginning, and we get very different answers...

Q: “Can I give my baby Nutella in her porridge for breakfast?”

A: “Making her porridge sweeter is likely to make her expect it to be sweet & chocolatey every time. If you try to give her plain porridge again, she may well refuse it without the Nutella. This may eventually lead to an addiction to sweet breakfasts, which can make it difficult to enjoy a nutritious meal in the morning. Why not try giving baby a small amount of a less sugar-laden chocolate spread on a piece of toast, alongside savoury options, as part of a healthy meal?”

Q: "My 11 month old just screamed at me because he hasn't got what my other two have (Strawberry Nesquik). Would it be alright?"

A: "Your baby already has a sweet tooth, as breast milk and formula are both pretty sweet. Adding sugar/sweeteners to his milk may give him an even sweeter tooth, making regular milk (or even water) taste boring, so you may struggle to get him to have unsweetened drinks in future. You may also want to think about what habits your baby is learning if you reward him with sweet food or drink after he's had a tantrum. Kicking off when you can't get a sweet fix and using sweet food & drink as a way to improve a bad mood are bad habits that may lead to adult addictions.

Q: “If I make these porridge bars with golden syrup instead of honey, are they ok to give to my 6 month old?” A: “Porridge bars make a great breakfast or snack but there is no need to add sugar or sugar substitutes such as golden syrup. A couple of mashed bananas or some grated apples in the mixture will make it plenty sweet enough for a 6 month old and a lot more nutritious. If you decide to make syrup-sweetened ones when your child is older, make it clear that it's an occasional indulgence, rather than a regular part of their meals.”

By keeping the long term aim in mind - building healthy habits to avoid adult addictions in the future - I think this gives you a much clearer idea of what “moderation” needs to be.

For loads more tips and nutritious recipes suitable for BLW and beyond, follow me on Instagram: @mykindamum

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