Even if our kids are not overweight, a diet full of sugar and processed food is still harming them. We know it's tough to get kids to eat healthy. Here's a few things you can do to encourage better nutrition remembering that no child (or adult!) eats perfectly.
1. Educate yourselves and your children about nutrition.
Books, websites, podcasts provide great information on nutrition. If we pass on that knowledge to kids, they will make better choices. Even if they resist at first, your efforts will have an eventual effect if you take the right approach.
One to check out: wellnessmomma.com
Have conversations about nutrition. Discuss what foods are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Talk about drinks and foods that have added sugars or sweeteners as well as choosing foods that are not processed. Be food detectives by reading labels and finding hidden sugars.
2. Supply and provide healthy options.
As children grow, parents have less and less control over what they eat throughout the day. They will eat things at school and at a friends house that we may not approve of, but we can at least control the options we provide at home.
Start slow and try to start replacing the processed foods in your kitchen as they run out. You might be surprised that they won't miss the chips, crackers, sugary cereals and granola bars as much as you think! It's not that we need to make less healthy foods tabu or off limits, but we can certainly make them less accessible less often! Fill your refrigerator with fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season right now instead of boxed and packaged foods. Add more colors to meals. Make it a challenge to include as many colors as possible. Make ice cream, cookies, donuts an occasional special treat instead of keeping them around at all times.
Avoid margarine and seed oils (canola, grape seed, sunflower, soybean, safflower, peanut or anything labeled "vegetable oil"). Instead cook with healthy oils such as coconut, olive, or avocado oils. Click HERE for more information on the dangers of seed oils.
Research indicates that the extent to which fruits and vegetables are present and readily available and accessible in the home correlates positively with the level of consumption in school-age children. READ MORE HERE
3. Don't forget about drinks.
Avoid buying sweetened beverages including juice, sweetened teas, sports drinks. Make it a family goal to stop drinking and buying soda and other sweetened or artificially sweetened drinks. Sweet things in the liquid form are especially harmful to our bodies as they are absorbed quickly causing an overload of sugar in the system.
Even 100% fruit juice should be limited to 4-6 ounces/day. Take a look at the breakdown for a 12 ounce (350 ml) portion of Coca Cola and apple juice:
Coca Cola: 140 calories and 40 grams of sugar (10 teaspoons)
Apple juice: 165 calories and 39 grams of sugar (9.8 teaspoons)
Read more on this topic HERE.
Many may argue here that "natural" sugars are better than added sugars; but when fruit is in it's liquid form, the juice has the same effect on the body as soda. The sugar in an actual apple is bound within fibrous structures that break down and metabolize slowly during digestion so that the sugar is not overloading the body.
It can be tough as a parent to limit those foods and drinks that we've bought kids for years. Be patient! Changing eating habits takes time .....the family will eventually come around!
4. Teach children to listen to their bodies, but avoid excessive, unhealthy snacking.
It’s our job as parents to keep healthy foods in the house and provide nutrition for our children. It’s their job to learn to listen to their bodies to determine what they need and when they need it. Don’t force kids to eat if they aren’t hungry, but don’t then give them access to junk food and encourage a lot of snacking. For instance, if they refuse the meatloaf and broccoli you've prepared for dinner because they are not hungry, that's ok. Just don't allow them to grab a bag of chips an hour later to much on. We don’t force children to fast and would never withhold food from them, but if they choose to skip a meal it’s ok— they will NOT die from hunger! On the other hand, if they gobble up the meatloaf and broccoli and claim they are still hungry, allow them seconds or maybe a piece of fruit.
The snack food companies have convinced parents (and kids) that it is necessary and healthy to eat all day. It seems that it has recently become the norm that kids eat breakfast, often have a mid-morning snack at school, eat lunch, a snack after school, dinner, then a snack before bed. Not to mention, snacks after soccer games, at parties, for behavior rewards etc. This grazing behavior is not how most of us ate as kids and it is contributing to a growing number of overweight children and the development of Type 2 Diabetes at earlier ages. With a constant inflow of food, blood sugars are staying elevated all day forcing the body to continue releasing insulin leading to insulin resistance. READ MORE HERE.
Of course, kids are growing and likely need to eat more often than adults. Some kids have certain issues that require more frequent eating. Healthy snacks are fine and often necessary on days kids are more active and when there is a bigger gap between meals; but reducing unnecessary snacking on processed foods and sugars will help kids eat healthy portions of better foods at meal times and eventually reduce hunger between meals (a hunger that is likely more habitual due to constant eating). When kids do feel hungry, try to limit choices to only whole, unprocessed foods (fruit, veggies, nuts, meat).
5. Encourage a healthy relationship with food.
Don’t micromanage kids' food when you aren’t with them and avoid making any foods forbidden (unless they have a food allergy). Forbidden foods will only become more appealing. They will eat things other places and not in your presence that you may not want them to have, but they will eventually learn that they don’t feel good eating those foods.
At Healthy Kids Rx we avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad" and instead use the terms "always foods" for vegetables, fruits, meats and "sometimes foods" for chips, desserts, crackers.
6. Involve kids in grocery shopping and cooking.
Even young kids enjoy helping pick out produce at the store, finding and helping with new healthy recipes. Older kids can even be given one night a week to plan and prepare a dinner. Let kids choose from healthy options when packing their lunch.
7. Be careful with body acceptance!
Model healthy attitudes toward your body. Our kids shouldn't hear us criticizing our physical attributes. We absolutely want to teach our children that all bodies are beautiful and can be healthy at different weights and sizes, but body acceptance shouldn’t blur the line of accepting unhealthy bodies. Higher BMI is often the result of inflammatory conditions that are not healthy. Acceptance should result from loving our bodies, but not being apathetic towards them. We must be careful about accepting unhealthy conditions in the light of body acceptance or we may do our kids a disservice when we fail to acknowledge things that could be addressed to improve their health. Blaming genetics can also lead to feeling a lack of control or a lack of motivation to make changes "well, this is just the way I am and I can't do anything to change it." Poor eating habits that are passed on usually play a bigger role than any genetic predisposition to obesity.
8. Make an effort to eat meals together at a table without TV or devices.
Studies show kids who regularly sit down to dinner with the family are happier, healthier, and perform better in school.
We hope your family is striving to incorporate healthy food behaviors. Remember, children possess an innate ability to self-regulate their food intake. The extent to which they can do this is determined by the example and environmental conditions parents provide. Offering food frequently, offering large food portions, offering calorically rich, sweet or salty processed foods combined with parents modeling overconsumption of "sometimes" foods can all undermine kids ability to effectively follow natural cues for hunger and satiety.