In a fast-food nation, make nutrition a priority


It might not be the easiest thing you do, but it's one of the most important By Bev Bennett


If you read articles on children's nutrition, you may think there's a conspiracy to ruin your child's health.

A newborn has a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes, and for African-American and Latino babies the risk increases to one-in-two, according to a study reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA.

Critics blame the restaurant industry, snack food producers, advertisers, schools and even municipal planners for the fact that 15 percent of children ages 6-11 are overweight and face greater odds of chronic disease. Phrases such as "toxic environment" and "obeseogenic environment" make you wonder if you are doomed to obesity and its related diseases.

You can see the temptations anywhere you turn. Stop at a convenience store or a fast-food restaurant located near a school, and if it's 3 p.m. you won't be able to wedge yourself in the door as kids swarm like bees cut off from their nectar.

But don't give up on your kids' health. Although you may think you don't stand a chance against celebrity soft drink endorsements, television commercials or fast-food restaurants, you can influence what your children eat. Instead of surrendering, direct your child toward a lifestyle of wholesome food choices and physical activity.

Don't expect easy No one says it's easy-and in fact some health professionals think it's daunting.

You'll have to battle all the way, says Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorder.

"We've provided corporations with enormous profits for providing unhealthy food. And the environment has changed so we're very physically inactive," says Brownell, author of Food Fight, due out next year from Contemporary Books. Her book details the role of the food industry in the current obesity crisis.

Despite the obstacles, you can make changes by serving healthful foods and by acting as role models, says Susie Nanney, a registered dietitian with the Saint Louis University Obesity Prevention Center.

"Just as parents are gatekeepers for a child's safety, they're gatekeepers for food in the home," Nanney says. "Even though children are bombarded with commercials or see food you don't want them to eat, you are the gatekeeper for what children eat at home."

By supplying plenty of fruits and vegetables, cut into small-size pieces and placed within reach, you're ensuring your children have nourishing snacks at home.

Parents who complain their children are eating cookies instead of fresh fruit or yogurt as afternoon snacks can only blame themselves for making the foods available, says Jodie Shield, a registered dietitian in the northwest suburbs.

Feeding children shouldn't be a rigid formula, and buying the occasional cookies or chips isn't harmful, Shield says.

"But certain cookies are healthier than others. The parents, as gatekeepers, have to moderate choices," says Shield, a mother of three and co-author of the American Dietetic Association Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids.

In restaurants where you're footing the bill, you have a say in what's ordered and you can use the opportunity to teach your children about nutrition.

You can talk about your children having healthier hair and skin by eating vegetables and drinking reduced-fat milk instead of having a soft drink. You can check menus on Web sites maintained by fast food restaurants.

Although your child might not have the nourishing meal you'd provide at home, you can find foods you and your child can agree on.

"I don't expect the [restaurant] environment to change anytime soon. But you and your child can set goals for ordering food just as you'd set other goals. You can tell a child he had french fries the last time the family ate out; this time, the child should order a salad," Nanney says.

Real world guidelines Unfortunately, it sometimes seems easier to go along than set guidelines. When it's 6 p.m. and the family is in meltdown, it's easy to forget who's the boss.

A simple division of responsibility helps establish the eating relationship. You as the parent are responsible for what, where and when young children eat. Children are responsible for whether they eat and how much.

You can decide that dinner is at 6 p.m. at home and that chicken and broccoli will be on the menu. Your child gets the say in how much chicken or broccoli he's going to eat (and if none is the response to vegetables, read the sidebar).

In this bargain you don't have the right to cajole your child into eating his vegetables. And you shouldn't ask a child to eat some dreaded food in exchange for dessert. Children who get rewards for eating a certain food actually try the food less often, according to Nanney. Think about the message you're sending. You're telling your child a particular food is so awful you need to bribe him to eat it.

Instilling guilt isn't part of the deal either.

"Telling children to clean their plates because of starving children elsewhere causes a child to turn off his internal cues for fullness," says Nanney.

Eat as you preach. Otherwise your gatekeeper skills are wasted.

"I've seen commercials in which the children go to bed, then the parents go to the freezer for the Haagen-Dazs. Children pick up those kinds of things," says Nanney.

Faced with such food-promoting celebrities as Michael Jordan, you may wonder if you have any influence. The answer is a resounding yes.

"In a survey of role modeling conducted by the American Dietetic Association, parents are the role models for food. More than sports celebrities, more than other celebrities," Nanney says.

If you want your children to eat fruit, not cake, as dessert, help yourself to an apple or orange after a meal. If you want your children to eat less, don't heap your plate. You're showing by example how to eat wisely.

Creating a healthful routine at home puts your children on the road to good nutrition. However, as Brownell points out, they face all kinds of lures once they can make their own food choices.

"The entire U.S. government's budget for nutrition is one-fifth of the annual budget for Altoids [mints], and the Altoids budget is a speck compared with Pepsi. Who is going to win that one?" asks Brownell.

Nanney and Shield, who aren't as pessimistic, offer some tips for negotiating the "toxic environment."

• Talk to your school's administrators about substituting fruit, milk and yogurt for chips and soft drinks in vending machines. "You may have to compromise. It's like David going against Goliath, but you can have some input into what's stocked," says Nanney.

• Ask supermarkets to make more nutritional foods available. "I've seen families ask their grocers to provide light salad dressings in supermarket salad bars," says Nanney. "Let your supermarket manager know you want more convenient-to-use produce. Sweet grape tomatoes, salads in bags and baby carrots are successful because consumers demanded these foods," Nanney says.

• Bring recipe and nutrition information into the home. Supermarkets often offer recipe brochures for using fresh fruits and vegetables. For tips on serving more produce and for fun activities for children, visit

• Become active in the community to make sure parks are well lit and well patrolled and that broken glass is picked up, so children have a safe place to play outside.

• Set limits on how much time your children can watch television or play on the computer. Involve children in other activities, such as walking the dog or raking leaves, and get outdoors with your children.

• Make mealtime a special part of the day. "Invest the time in family meals," says Shield. "Seize the remote so the television isn't on during dinner. Eating should be eating. Don't grab the phone during dinner. Spend your time talking to your children and not someone on the phone."

• Don't expect overnight changes. "Positive habits take time to form. They don't happen randomly," says Shield.

Handling the fussy eater If you're like most parents with young children, this is a familiar scenario at your dinner table: You make a new dish-usually a vegetable-and serve your family. You might as well be serving boiled boots for all the enthusiasm your children muster.

This isn't the fault of the food or your children. Nor should you give up, say dietitians.

"Children are born food-phobic. Studies show they're very reluctant to try new foods," says dietitian Jodie Shield.

Rather than give up, develop a little patience, says Shield.

"A recent study shows that it takes at least 10 offerings for a child to try and eat a new vegetable. When a parent tells me her child won't eat a certain food, my gut feeling is that the parent is giving up too soon," Shield says.

The dietitian's own children refused to eat whole wheat bread.

"They said it's brown and looks different. It took a lot of offerings for my children to try the whole wheat," says Shield.

In addition to being food wary, children's appetites change. Between the ages of 2 and 6 children are past their growth spurt and eat less, according to Shield. If they're not gobbling down Brussels sprouts it could be that they're not as hungry.

"Parents need to understand physiologically kids need less food [at this age]" Shield says.





Bev Bennett is the mother of two and the author of 30 Minute Meals for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003)


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