Excessive Water Consumption

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Inspired by innumerable social media fads and health influencers these days, it’s easy for parents to get excited about all the healthy habits we want our children to cultivate — after all, what’s wrong with eating healthy and drinking plenty of water, right? But while these always start with the most earnest and best intentions, we can sometimes get carried away and go overboard with our rules and regimes. As the saying goes: “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.”

There is, unfortunately, a pretty fine line between implementing healthy habits and inadvertently causing harm. It’s therefore crucial for parents to strike a balance and recognize when certain practices can actually become detrimental to our children’s health. Here are seven “healthy habits” that, when taken to the extreme, can harm your child’s well-being

1. Excessive Water Consumption

Excessive Water Consumption
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Hydration is crucial of course, particularly in our part of the world where temperatures and humidity perennially run high, but overdoing it can lead to water toxicity or water poisoning — a potentially life-threatening condition. What happens is an excessive amount of water can dilute the electrolytes and sodium in our bloodstream, causing disruption to brain function or swelling in the brain that can be fatal. A 35-year-old American woman recently passed on after drinking almost two litres of water in about 20 minutes. 

Remember that kids have smaller bodies and different hydration needs from adults. It’s essential to encourage drinking when they’re thirsty, rather than forcing excessive water intake. As a benchmark, experts recommend that adult males consume 15.5 cups of water a day, while females consume 11.5 cups. Children on the other hand are recommended a lot less — kids aged 1-3 need approximately four cups of beverages daily (water and milk inclusive), while kids aged 4-8 need about 5 cups, and kids older than that require 7-8 cups. 

2. Overly Strict Diet Restriction

Overly Strict Diet Restriction
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A balanced diet is key, but being overly strict can inadvertently deprive your child of vital nutrients. For instance, overloading on vegetables while neglecting protein, fats, and carbohydrates can hinder growth and development. It is important to ensure they get enough protein, good fats, and carbohydrates to support their growth and energy needs. 

In the long run, being overly strict about diets can also cause children to develop unhealthy relationships with food. Studies have shown that a child who is forbidden “unhealthy foods” often grows up with an increased desire for those very foods and tends to suffer from dysregulated eating behaviours later on in life. Kids with highly controlled diets and parents who are overconcerned about their weight also often suffer from body image issues. Jaclyn Reutens, a dietitian from Aptima Nutrition, treats children with eating disorders from as young as 11, and attests that the parents often play a big role in their child developing unhealthy eating habits.   

3. Zero Sugar Policy

Zero Sugar Policy
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Sugar is often vilified, and to much extent because research has found links between high sugar diets and sleep, learning, emotional and behavioural issues in children. Yet it’s a necessary source of energy for growing bodies. Although excessive sugar intake is problematic and it is prudent for parents to limit their children’s sugar intake, completely eliminating it can deprive your kids of the energy they need to fuel their active lifestyles. Sugar fuels their fast metabolism and provides energy for play and growth. Instead of totally eliminating sugar, try opting for moderate sugar consumption from natural sources such as fruits.

Researchers also suggest that parents should avoid a “zero sugar policy”, and instead adopt a form of “covert control” to manage their sugar intake. This is because research has found that kids who were denied sugary foods maybe ate less in the short-term, but became more preoccupied with the restricted foods over time. Examples of a “covert control” strategy include avoiding eating sweets in front of your kids, not having sweets at home, and avoiding candy stores, which are more effective in the long run for building healthy eating patterns.

“You can occasionally allow your child cake or ice cream or candy,” says Jaclyn, “so as to teach them that these are ‘once-in-a-while’ foods, and not ‘everyday food’.”

4. Excessive Exercise and Muscle Building

Excessive Exercise and Muscle Building
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Encouraging physical activity is great, but pushing children too hard into strenuous or muscle-building exercises can be stressful for young bodies, sometimes leading to injury and stunting their growth. While some kids may genuinely enjoy sports and fitness, encouraging muscle-building exercises at a young age can be very harmful for them. A study has found that kids active in weight-dependent sports such as gymnastics may be susceptible to eating disorders and related consequences, such as premature loss of bone mass.

The same study also concludes that an appropriate amount of exercise (not too much and not too little) is important for a child’s healthy growth and development. Focus therefore instead on age-appropriate and balanced physical activities that promote overall fitness and coordination rather than intensive strength training or muscle building. It is also imperative to teach your children how to strike a balance between activity and rest, so as to allow their growing muscles and bones to develop naturally.

5. Overusing Hand Sanitisers

Overusing Hand Sanitisers
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Although probably a more recent by-product of COVID-19, the use of hand sanitisers can also be viewed as an extension of how some parents in the past already felt the need to keep their kids sterile and in germ-free environments. While it’s important to keep infants safe from germs at the start of their lives, for maybe the first three to six months, it is not necessarily healthy to perpetuate the same level of protection for kids who’ve grown up. 

Maintaining hygiene remains vital at all ages, but excessive use of sanitisers may disrupt the natural development of your child’s immune system, harming their immune system instead by preventing exposure to beneficial microbes. Encourage handwashing with soap and water where possible, but do allow them some exposure to germs in order to strengthen immunity. Also note when using hand sanitisers on young children to avoid those with high alcohol content, which may increase risks of poisoning, dry skin and eczema, as well as those containing triclosan, which can disrupt hormones and contribute to antibiotic resistance.

6. Taking Too Many Supplements

Taking Too Many Supplements
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Another unfortunate example of when too much of a good thing can be bad — it turns out that giving your children too many supplements can hurt them instead of helping. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has reported that millions of American children under eight years old are getting too much vitamin A, zinc and niacin from fortified foods and supplements. While there’s no local survey or statistic here to compare against that, this lack of attention and governance in itself forms part of the issue.

There is simply not enough oversight or regulation when it comes to supplements, meaning that their content, safety and effectiveness is unknown — especially pertaining to children because of the limited testing done in their age group. On top of that, supplements can be mislabelled, can negatively interact with medication, and at high doses can be toxic and interfere with the absorption of other nutrients. Clinical dietician Jessica Brown recommends that kids get all their nutrients from a healthy diet paying attention to four food groups (fortified dairy or dairy substitutes, whole or enriched grain products, dark green vegetables, and healthy fats such as nut butters, plant oils and non-hydrogenated margarine) because supplements may not be safe or necessary for every child.

7. Brushing After Meals

Brushing After Meals
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Another seemingly healthy habit to impart to your kids — having them brush their teeth after a meal (or every meal) — is coming to light as causing more harm than good. It turns out that the acid from some citrus fruit, carbonated and sports drinks can weaken the enamel on our teeth, and brushing when the enamel is soft can exacerbate the effect of the acid and cause erosive damage to our teeth enamel.

That’s why the American Dental Association recommends that you wait 60 minutes after eating before brushing, particularly if you’ve had acidic food. Instead of brushing after meals, experts recommend that you brush early in the morning to remove overnight bacteria and plaque, and floss and brush right before bed to remove the food particles, plaque and bacteria from the day’s meals. Brushing twice at the right time is good enough!