A Steady Diet of Common Sense Parents Must Be Gatekeepers for Good Nutritional Habits

Dietitians across the country celebrated National Nutrition Month in March by helping to focus attention in the media on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical-activity habits. And at no time is this more important than when it comes to the health of our children.

When faced with such astounding numbers as the one in three children in the U.S. considered to be obese, every day should focus on good nutrition. Obesity is believed to be the number-one health concern of parents in America today, even surpassing their concerns over drug abuse and smoking. Defined as having excess body fat, obesity typically begins between ages 5 and 6 and manifests in children whose weight is at least 10{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} higher than what is recommended for their height and body type.

There is no single answer as to why our children are obese today. Its causes are multi-factorial — unhealthy eating habits at home, school, and in restaurants, exacerbated by living in a too-busy society where fast and processed foods are the norm, as well as the influence of marketing to children, socioeconomic status, cultural attitudes about body weight, and a lack of physical exercise.

Hard Choices

What I like to tell parents is that they are the gatekeepers when it comes to establishing good nutritional habits for their children. Controlled food choices must begin at home and, in a perfect world, continue into our schools and restaurants. Hungry children are much less picky and will be happy with healthier alternatives if they are available and not offered alongside the junk foods, or, as I like to refer to them, ’sometimes foods.’

Have you noticed that grocery stores have nearly doubled in size from when many of us were children? Many kids today believe food comes from boxes and cans, rather than fresh from the farm or from the ground in the backyard garden. Just look at the small space in your supermarket devoted to healthy fresh fruits and vegetables in comparison to the glut of processed foods (foods lining the shelves which are in boxes, bags, cans, or jars) which are made with trans fats and saturated fats, and are high in sodium or sugar — additives that can make them addictive to the taste.

But, while they may taste good and offer busy parents a quick and easy solution to what’s for supper, many processed foods offer no real nutritional value and can result in overeating and increased body fat, and contribute to the development of diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers.

As a nutritionist, while walking the aisles of a grocery store, I see marketing capitalism at its worst. We have a food industry in this country that spends billions of dollars each year on marketing their products to children, most of which are of poor nutritional quality, from sugar-laden cereals to all kinds of fast foods. They place images of cartoon characters on their bright, colorful, attractive packages; invite recognizable, kid-friendly celebrities to endorse their products; and attach gimmicks and toys to their packaging as incentives for children to buy their products — rendering many parents ineffective in their efforts to steer their children into making healthy choices.

We live in a super-sized society where the phrase ’bigger is better’ has ruled our purchasing decisions, and that also applies to the food we serve to our children. They learn to expect overflowing plates of spaghetti served at a restaurant or at home, and parents who are of the ’clean your plate’ club effectively teach children to ignore their fullness cues. In the nutrition industry, we refer to this problem as ’portion distortion.’ A child’s portion sizes for each food group should be equivalent to about the size of their fist, and only the size of a couple of fingers for meats. Just like adults, they should be eating at least five servings of different-colored fruits and vegetables daily, served at each meal and snack.

To assist parents in dishing up a healthy meal to their children, the federal government unveiled last June a colorful new food icon called MyPlate, which emphasizes the fruit, vegetable, grains, protein, and dairy food groups that should appear on the plate. Children should have a well-balanced meal containing one-quarter of the plate as protein, either baked or broiled; one-quarter as grains, beans, or starchy vegetables; one-half non-starchy vegetables; and small amounts of added fats, with fruits and dairy on the side or as snacks.

School Daze

For years, healthy food choices have been a major issue in our schools nationwide, where high-calorie school meals have been laden with unhealthy fats, sugar, and sodium. The good news is that we are beginning to win the battle in advocating for more healthy foods and greater choices for schoolchildren. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently working on improving the nutrition standards of school meals, Massachusetts has taken the lead in developing new school-nutrition standards. Beginning during the 2012-13 school year, new legislation will ban foods with artificial sweeteners, trans fats, and caffeine from a la carte lines, vending machines, and school stores. Additional healthy new standards include banning fried foods and the amount of fat, sodium, and sugar that can be hidden in school foods.

It’s sad that we had to wait for legislation to force changes to protect our children. Its time is long overdue, and children are responding positively to the changes. Even healthy-choice vending machines are just as successful now as their sugar- and fat-filled counterparts in schools.

And it’s not just poor food choices and overeating behind the epidemic of obesity in the U.S. — inactivity also plays a large role. Many parents, concerned for their children’s safety outdoors in today’s world, are content to let them stay inside exercising their thumbs with video games and watching television full of enticing food advertisements. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children and adolescents should engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

What’s a Parent to Do?

As the true gatekeepers in the household, parents have a responsibility to keep excess junk food out of the home, even for themselves, and limit the choices for their children by stocking the refrigerator with healthy fruits and vegetables. If money is a concern, remember, locally grown, in-season foods will cost you less. Also, they usually have fewer pesticides than those strawberries or grapes that come from Mexico or Chile off-season. Even frozen and canned fruits are healthy options if fresh isn’t available. Kids love mixed-fruit salads, fruit smoothies, and veggies with low-fat dips, especially when they’re hungry and not filled up on sweet drinks, including high-calorie juices.

Don’t pressure or reward your children to eat their vegetables. After all, they think that, if they get a treat for eating their broccoli, then there must be something yucky about it. Regularly serve the broccoli (and eat it yourself), and over time they will come to accept it, even if it takes months. Also, empower your child with their healthy food decisions by offering controlled choices. For instance, never ask if they would like to try something, but rather ask if they would like to have that broccoli raw with dip or sautéed with garlic. If their answer is neither, serve it anyway, never pressuring them to eat it. Simply make it a routine until they are familiar enough with the broccoli to try that first bite when they are ready. When that first bite is tried, resist overly praising them, or your efforts will often backfire.

Also, remember that everything is fine in moderation and that your child is still going to want to go to his or her favorite fast-food restaurant on occasion. Many chains now offer more balanced sides, and parents could order small portions of fries, for instance, to share as a family.

While parents are the gatekeepers when it comes to developing healthy choices for their family, good nutrition is also a societal responsibility. Food manufacturers care only about sales. We vote with our wallets to influence our food supply, and ultimately what we serve our family. Our collective votes count, and can have the power to alter what’s in our stores, schools, and restaurants.

Nancy Anderson, RD, CSP, LDN is a pediatric clinical nutritionist in Food and Nutrition Services at Baystate Medical Center.