Jan 16

100-Calorie Snacks for Kids?

Recently, Public Health England launched a campaign encouraging parents to limit children’s snacks to no more than 2 a day, with a maximum of 100 calories per snack.  If you’re in the UK, you may have seen the adverts.

The data behind this campaign are alarming.  According to PHE, children aged 4-10 get over half their daily sugar from unhealthy snacks, and many are eating up to 3 sugary snacks a day, pushing their sugar intake over the recommended limit (1).  In the longterm, sugar may be associated with many serious chronic health conditions, and a sugary diet may contribute to obesity in some children.

Sugar in snacks

Where do your children get their sugar?

As regular readers know, I’m all for reducing sugar, and developing healthy habits for life, particularly in children, who may find it easier to maintain healthy habits if they’re used to them from an early age.  When I worked with children in schools, I used to be shocked by the contents of some of their lunchboxes.  Some children are literally sent to school with just cakes, sweets and crisps day in, day out.  With the sort of diets I used to see, it was unsurprising that children were unable to learn or behave particularly well.  So, you’d expect I’d be 100% behind this 100 calorie campaign. Right?


As so often happens, PHE have started with a very commendable aim, but they’ve got their knickers in a knot over the execution.  Here’s why:

  1. Small children surrounded by fruit and vegetables

    I like to see children enjoying a healthy relationship with food.

    Children should not be focusing on calories. Neither should adults, for that matter because, as interventions go, they’re a pretty poor way to mange weight if that’s your objective, and bear little correlation with any other health objective you might want to achieve.  But, more to the point, I’m always disturbed when children want to know how many calories are in something, or make remarks about weight.  These concerns really shouldn’t form part of childhood.  I like to see children having a healthy relationship with food.  What I mean by ‘healthy’ is enjoying a variety of whole foods, trying out different things, eating fresh, well-balanced meals, practicing kitchen skills and not being anxious about what they eat.  I often tell the story of 2 children in my class who refused to eat something because their ballet teacher said they were getting fat.  These children were 9 years old, and neither was remotely chubby, let alone fat.  With all the focus on obesity, we are forgetting how many children develop eating disorders and food phobias, and are handed an unhealthy relationship with food, which plagues them for life.  Over 1.6 million people in the UK alone may be directly affected by eating disorders (2).  I think that focusing on calories in childhood can only perpetuate that distorted relationship.

  2. It gives mixed messages. The campaign purports to be aimed at reducing sugar.  That’s a great aim.  So why switch to talking about calories?  High sugar doesn’t necessarily equal high calories. Sugars and proteins have exactly the same number of calories per gram.  Children can still eat very sugary snacks within the suggested calorie limit.  For example:

  • 20g M&Ms (90 calories, 13.5g sugar)

  • 1 Drifter Biscuit (97 calories, 11.4g sugar)

  • 1 Milky Way (21.5g) (94 calories, 14g sugar) (3)

In other words, these snacks are all within the calorie limit, but contain over half the maximum recommended sugar for a 7-10 year old, and over 2/3 of the maximum sugar allowance for a 4-6 year old.  Remember that the campaign allows two such snacks every day.  By focusing on calories when it intends to raise awareness about sugar, this campaign fails not only itself, but the families who need it the most.

It’s great to encourage parents and children to know what’s in their food by becoming label detectives, but if the campaign is about sugar, inform them about how to look for sugar on a food label.

  1. It isn’t helping parents make healthy choices. If a food is lower in calories, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy.  For example, there are packets of lower fat crisps which are under 100 calories.  When you look at the ingredients for a certain brand, the third ingredient is salt, and the fourth is sugar.  Furthermore, crisps are still primarily a carbohydrate based product, and, as many people know, carbohydrate is broken down into sugar during digestion. But, according to the 100-calorie guidelines, this, plus a diet fizzy drink, would be a perfectly acceptable snack!  In fact, the campaign is giving out vouchers to parents to buy foods which it considers healthy according to their calorie count, and recommending other foods within this limit.  These include:

    1. Jelly sweets

      Low calorie isn’t always healthy!

      Fruit flavoured yoghurts (the second ingredient is sugar, and one little pot contains 1/3 of a 7-10 year old’s daily sugar allowance).

    2. Sugar free jelly (artificial sweeteners).

    3. Crumpets (refined flour, contains sugar).

On the whole, I’m quite a fan of ‘Change for Life’.  It’s doing its best, and it’s working with real families, who may have had no previous interest in nutrition.  If a child is eating 3 chocolate bars a day and drinking sugary drinks, some of these options might indeed be better for them.  But there are better options still, and they don’t have to cost the earth.  What I mean by a ‘better’ option is one that’s giving the child nutrient density and variety from whole foods.  In the second part of this article, I’ll be sharing some quick and healthy snacks which fit the bill for me, and for many of my young students as well.  Watch this space!


  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42411474 [Accessed 3 January 2018].
  2. http://www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk/about/statistics [Accessed 3 January 2018].
  3. http://www.womanmagazine.co.uk/featured/chocolate-treats-under-200-cals-32751 [Accessed 3 January 2018].

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