In January, just as we all reeled from holiday food stupor and vowed to feed ourselves and our kids nothing but spinach for the rest of the year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the latest version of its dietary guidelines for America.
But the rapidly rising increase in childhood obesity—obesity in young people has doubled in the last 20 years, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians—may serve as a wake-up call to the food industry and parents. Children who are obese now and stay obese into adulthood will face increased risks of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis earlier in life.
The new federal dietary guidelines emphasize three factors in children’s nutrition:
Eat more fresh foods
For the average 7- to 10-year-old, the recommendation works out to about 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day. For children, a higher percentage of that amount is likely to be fruit. It’s easier to get kids to eat bananas than green beans. The guidelines also advise that kids get half of their grains as whole grains.
Get more exercise
For children, the guidelines say at least 60 minutes of activity daily. That means less PlayStation and more basketball, less instant-messaging and more bike riding, less time in front of the TV and more time taking family walks.
Cut back on sugar
The government has not set a daily value or even a precise recommended amount for added sugars, but just says to take it easy on the sweets.
A study published in the February issue of Pediatrics points to sweet drinks—including all-natural fruit juices—as another culprit in the battle of our bulging kids. The effect of the additional sugar children get from soda, fruit drinks and other sweetened drinks is particularly serious in children who already are overweight or in danger of being overweight. The research suggests kids would be better off eating a piece of fruit and drinking only water and milk.
Just after the government released its guidelines, Kraft Foods, maker of Oreos and Oscar Mayer lunchmeats, announced plans to curb advertising of snack foods to kids under the age of 12—at least in traditional media (the Internet games stay). And General Mills, maker of Cheerios, Trix and Lucky Charms, has converted all of its cereals into whole-grain products.
On the family front, it’s time to scrutinize eating habits and recipes to see where they might be made healthier. Recently, I revamped our favorite family recipe to be lower in added sugar, heavier in blueberries and richer in fiber. My kids still love these muffins. Virginia Van Vynckt, mother of two, has written extensively about food and nutrition, and is the author of Feed Your Kids Right the Lazy Way.
1¼ cups all-purpose flour ¾ cup oat flour (see note) 1 tablespoon baking powder ¼ teaspoon salt ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg ½ cup sugar 2 eggs ¼ cup canola or vegetable oil ¾ to 1 cup lowfat or nonfat milk
1½ to 2 cups blueberries (fresh or frozen, thawed) Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper cupcake liners. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flours, baking powder, salt, nutmeg and sugar. Stir in the eggs, oil and enough milk to make a thick (but not too stiff) batter. Gently stir in the blueberries. Spoon batter into the paper-lined muffin pan, about ¾ full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until muffins are pale golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. These are best served warm, but also freeze well. Makes 1 dozen muffins. Note: Many supermarkets carry whole-grain oat flour in the health food section, and it’s available at many natural food stores. You can easily make your own oat flour by grinding oats (old fashioned or quick, not instant) in a blender or food processor. If oat flour is unavailable, substitute whole-wheat flour.
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