Wean kids off junk food

Parents need to learn to say 'no', writes Julieanne Strachan

Michelle Bridges and Shannan Ponton.
Michelle Bridges and Shannan Ponton. Photo: SUPPLIED

Ineed to harden up and stop being so soft on kids, The Biggest Loser trainers Shannan Ponton and Michelle Bridges have told me.

I suppose it's a good thing I don't have any of my own yet.

''They don't need a Happy Meal!'' Ponton tells me in a disbelieving tone.

I've just asked if there is an easy way to get kids off junk food and slim down, because kids can be tough customers. Sometimes they think they really need something that they just want. Sometimes it's hard to say no.

Bridges is laughing in the background, via speaker phone, and agreeing with Ponton.

The kids in my life have been playing me, she confirms.

''When I was a kid I was a master manipulator,'' she says.

''I knew who I could work and who I couldn't work. My aunty Betty was an absolute rock. I knew I couldn't ask her for biscuits. And more power to her.''

The celebrity trainers are coming to Canberra on Friday for an event at the Hyperdome as part of their project to get Australian kids eating and living healthily.

The visit is a part of their role as ambassadors for the Let's Live Better - Run Around Australia program, which they have been doing for three years.

Being celebrities has given them something of a leg up with the kids, Ponton says.

''This is our third year of going into schools and we have seen the impact,'' he says. ''We see kids running up to us and and saying 'This is how many push ups I can do'. But what we are also seeing is that more children are overweight than there were when we were at school. We are getting to the grass-roots level and we're trying to reverse the myth that it's cool of eat junk food. We want to make fresh food fun.''

Let's Live Better is a program from Colonial First State Global Asset Management shopping centres, partnered up with the Children's Food Education Foundation and aimed at educating children about how to ''live better'' through healthy eating and exercise.

This year schools will accumulate ''kilometres'' for their school by shopping and eating healthy food. Their progress will be tracked on an interactive map at runaroundaustralia.com.au, where they can see which school is in the lead. The two schools that run around Australia the furthest (or do the most laps) will win a $46,000 gold-medal makeover.

The gold-medal makeover will include $15,000 cash, $15,000 of sport and education equipment, a canteen makeover by Thermomix and award-winning chef, author and TV talk-show favourite, Chef Laurent.

Bridges says it is important to get in early because the habits children developed could stay with them for a lifetime.

''A lot of people put their careers and time restrictions forward [as reasons not to exercise] and yet I have seen busy families do training together and it brings them closer together,'' she says.

''Going on a bike ride as a family, that's what memories are made of as a child - you don't really remember sitting in front of the TV together - you are more likely to remember things like backyard cricket.

''I grew up in a healthy family and when I left home on my first shopping trip to the supermarket I went down the aisles and bought everything I was not allowed to have - the Coco Pops, white bread, chocolate ice cream,'' she says. ''It lasted for a week and I felt disgusting and then I went back to the healthy habits I had for the last 18 years.

''What people grew up with is what they are going to fall back on. You don't have to make a big song and dance about it, just say to the kids, 'This is the what we do and the way we are.' ''

Bridges says she once trained a client who lost almost 70 kilograms.

''He had two young girls who were addicted to junk food and it was a big ask,'' she says. ''They would eat it four to five times a week. And he had to be a brick wall to those those two girls to get them off that junk food.

''What he did was say 'You have to earn points to get it by doing chores during the week and then it can be a once-a-week treat.' ''

Ponton said the break from junk food was an important one.

''It is a totally psychological addiction. The body can in no way crave junk food.

''There is hunger in your stomach and your mouth has tastebuds. But the want for junk food is purely psychological. It's habit and it can be hard to break and anyone who quits smoking knows it can be hard.''

Bridges says one of the best ways to get out of the bad habit was to avoid becoming overly hungry and making yourself more susceptible to temptation.

''Get organised - get your diary out and work out when you are going to exercise and what meals you are going to have and make some and put them in the freezer,'' she says. ''That way, if you come home late and tired, you can just heat it up.''

Ponton says there are clever treats for kids that are healthy, but no real shortcuts to a healthy life and it is time to stop looking for the easy way out.

''You should not be trying to make life pain-free,'' he says.

He also also has a blunt message on why people such as me should stop being so soft on kids: we're part of the problem.

''I think parents have lost the art of saying 'no' and we have become a really soft society,'' he says. ''Parents have to learn to say 'no' and pull kids up and say 'You are not going to sit in front of the computer all day - you have to go to soccer training.'

''I think parents are scared and they have moddycoddled kids so badly. You have to toughen up a bit.''

In the absence of children of my own, I should probably tell that to my pet cat. He could stand to lose some weight.

■ Michelle Bridges and Shannon Ponton will be at the Tuggeranong Hyperdome on Friday from 6pm.