Why is it that those of us who consider ourselves somewhat health-conscious fail to follow the same healthy diet principles when it comes to feeding our children. We eat free range eggs or a healthy protein shake for breakfast while our children eat sweetened cereal or toaster waffles. We eat a balanced meals for lunch and dinner, consisting of quality proteins and fresh vegetables while our little ones eat grilled cheese or pizza. We snack on organic nuts, low-sugar yogurt and fresh fruits while our kids eat string cheese, cookies and fruit roll-ups. And we drink filtered bottled water while we allow our children to drink soda and sweetened fruit juice. Why is this okay? It's not, and it's easier to change and control than you may think.
Before we get into how to go about changing your child's eating habits for the better, let's look at why we should even be concerned about this issue in the first place. Perhaps an effective way to assess the reasons for changing our children's diets would be to look at some common myths (otherwise known as excuses) concerning childhood nutrition.
Myth #1: Our diets were not all that great growing up and we turned out okay, right?
Fact: Well, that depends on how you look at it. The rates of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, stroke, clinical depression, and obesity are all higher among adults in this country today than they were forty years ago. Did we really turn out okay?
Myth #2: Children need more sugar and carbohydrates than us adults because they are more active and need more energy.
Fact: This one works on a dangerous assumption — that more carbohydrates equals more energy. While it is true that energy is produced more quickly from carbohydrates, how many children's schedules require them to be most active immediately after a meal? The human body can make glucose for energy from proteins and fats as well. The only reason anyone, including children, would need to consume simple and refined sugars is if they going to use that sugar for energy immediately after consuming it. This may be true for endurance athletes on a competitive level, but it is generally not the case for a child. When we eat simple or refined sugars (high glycemic foods), our bodies immediately convert them to blood glucose for immediate use. Whatever we do not use up quickly gets converted to glycogen and fat. The glycogen gets stored in our liver and muscles, which have a very limited capacity for the stuff. The rest is stored as adipose tissue — or body fat. A child typical child may burn more calories in a day than a typical adult, but those calories are generally not needed any more quickly in a child.
Myth #3: But fruit juice is good for kids. It is high in vitamins and minerals.
Fact: First of all, although the labels on fruit juice containers indicate that they are high in vitamins and minerals, most of them, when tested, prove to be quite deficient. This is because fruit juices are typically pasteurized — a process which depletes the nutrient content of food. Some manufacturers attempt to make up for the deficiency by adding back in synthetic nutrients ("fortified"), but these synthetic forms are inferior and poorly absorbed by the body.
Another problem with this statement is that many "fruit juices" products contain very little real fruit juice at all. They often contain a small percentage of fruit juice and the balance consists of sucrose (table sugar) or high fructose corn syrup (even worse). This leads us to our third and most significant problem with fruit juice — the sugar content. Fruit juice, whether real or fake, is very high in sugar, which is the source of a variety of health concerns for children. Eating the whole fruit is the best way to enjoy the nutritional benefits of fruit, because there is much less sugar per serving. The increasing rate of childhood obesity and diabetes may be directly attributed to high daily sugar intake. It is also a culprit with many behavioral disorders, such as ADD and ADHD.
Myth #4: Won't a high-protein, high-fat, low carbohydrate diet make my child overweight or cause other health problems?
Fact: Not likely. This is a commonly held fear, but it is simply not supported by history or science. The convincing proof of this fact are the four government-sponsored studies that have been conducted on the Atkins diet to date. Each study showed that the higher protein/lower carbohydrate diet promoted less body fat, raised HDL cholesterol, and lowered LDL cholesterol. Although cholesterol is generally not an issue that concerns children's health, these studies collectively contradicted the theory (and it has always been just a theory) that reducing carbohydrate intake and raising protein and fat intake is harmful. Conversely, regular consumption of refined sugars and insufficient protein intake have proven time and again to promote obesity and ill-health in children.
Myth #5: Food does not affect a child's mood.
Fact: Carol Simontacchi, PhD, CNC, in her book The Crazy Makers, writes about a study she conducted on the influence of diet on cognition and mood states in high school students. Half the students were required to consume a nutrient-dense breakfast drink each morning upon arriving to school for a period of four weeks. The other half (the control group) continued to eat what they normally would eat, or not eat, for breakfast. All the students were tested for cognitive function and mood states prior to and after the four week period. The breakfast drink was an over-the-counter blend of protein, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids (Omega 3's & 6's), vitamins, and minerals specifically designed as a meal replacement. At the end of the four weeks, the children tested and the kids who had faithfully used the nutrient-dense breakfast drink showed a clear improvement in mood. In fact, the results were so good that she reran the stats to verify the findings. The mood test (Profile of Mood States, or "POMS") measured six identifiable affects or expression of emotional states, including: tension-anxiety; depression-dejection; anger-hostility; vigor-activity; fatigue-inertia; and confusion-bewilderment.
The drink made a significant difference in how these kids felt emotionally because it contained most of the essential nutrients that the typical American breakfast lacks. Additionally, the results of this study have been replicated in private counseling sessions with physicians and clinical nutritionists, and in other studies around the world. "Food wields a powerful influence over mood, both to our advantage and to our disadvantage," says Ms. Simontacchi. Does this mean that our children must drink a nutrient shake for breakfast every morning to ensure they are getting the proper balance of nutrition? No. The same nutrients that were found in that shake exist in any balanced breakfast (including proteins, complex carbohydrates and essential fats) consisting of whole, natural foods.
Myth #6: A healthy diet is not practical for children because they won't eat it and there's no time to make it.
Fact: This is where it gets tricky because now we are dealing with priorities and choices every parent makes. What to feed your children and how to control their behavior is a highly personal matter. What this really comes down to is how important to you is your children's health? Is it important enough for you to make his or her diet a priority? If you believe the facts discussed above, than it's just a matter of making it work. As a parent, aren't you already using food as a means of controlling your child's behavior? If your child makes a fuss when you ask him or her to eat eggs for breakfast instead of sweetened cereal or a breakfast bar, do you give in to their demands in order to stop the whining or just to get them to eat something? Is there really no way you can make your child eat the healthy diet you know he or she needs? Have you been making excuses for not feeding your child properly in order to make it easier on yourself?
If you answered yes to these questions, it's not right or wrong. It just let's you know where you are with this issue. If you not ready to accept that food affects your child's health or behavior, or if you are not ready to take the time and considerable effort that may be required to change their eating habits, that's okay. You have made a choice. Just know that the choice you make is for you AND your child.
If you have decided that you are ready to change your child's eating habits for the better, where do you begin? Below is a list of ten ways you can improve your child's diet and health. If this is simply too much to take on at once, keep in mind that these items are listed in order of priority so that the most significant changes are listed at the top. This way, you can begin with #1 and work your way down at your own pace. A good place to start may be one change per month. But we caution you not to move on to the next change until you have mastered the current one.
One more essential piece of this process of changing your child's nutrition is that everyone who has parental or caregiver responsibilities with the child must be in support of the changes. The most common reason for a failure or inability to change a child's diet is that someone in the home, either a parent or caregiver, does not support the changes and consequently sabotages your efforts to implement them or maintain them. Remember, implementing changes like these will not be easy in most cases and without full cooperation from everyone responsible for the child's care, it will be nearly impossible. The best way to avoid this scenario is to have a family meeting before getting started to discuss the reasons and goals for implementing these changes to ensure that everyone involved is on the same page.
Here are the ten most significant ways to make your child's diet a healthy one:
1. Eliminate your child's soda consumption – We have all heard that a single can of soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. However, it also contains 30-55 mg of caffeine and is loaded with artificial food colors and sulphites. These items are known neurotoxins and may dramatically affect behavior and mood. Additionally, the phosphoric acid content in sodas interferes with the body's ability to use calcium, which can set the child up for osteoporosis or softening of the teeth and bones. Phosphoric acid also neutralizes the hydrochloric acid in your stomach, which can interfere with digestion and make it difficult to utilize nutrients. If the soda is sugar-free, it usually contains aspartame, which is associated with over 90 different health side effects, including brain tumors, diabetes, emotional disorders, and seizures.
One very disturbing trend is that soft drink companies are signing exclusive contracts with public schools to provide vending machines so that children will be guaranteed access to their sodas while at school. Under these contracts, school boards are actually guaranteeing sales of a certain number of sodas per year — a soda quota! One school district in Prince George's County guaranteed sales of 4,500 cases of sodas a year — or about 50 sodas per student. It is not uncommon for these contracts to be worth $100,000 per school year. And now that the senior vice president for public affairs and chief lobbyist for Coca-Cola has joined the National PTA's (Parent, Teachers Association) Board of Directors, any effort to fight this trend will be more difficult.
2. Reduce your child's consumption of refined sugars and processed carbohydrates – Excessive sugar consumption is likely the leading contributing factor to obesity and diabetes. It is a proven fact that refined sugars — such as are found in candy, cookies, fruit juices, and other sweet snacks — and processed carbohydrates — such as breads, bagels, pastas, cereals, and crackers — promote elevated insulin levels, which can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, brain and behavioral disorders, and many more negative side effects. This is a big one, and perhaps the most difficult change for your child to make, because sugar can become an addiction. Very often, getting a child off sugar is not much different than getting a smoker off cigarettes. The occasional sweet treat now and then is not the problem. The problem is the daily or routine consumption of these anti-nutrient foods.
3. Reduce or eliminate your child's consumption of fast food, junk food, and all other food products that contain food additives and preservatives, such as food colorings, MSG, and artificial sweeteners – This may seem like an obvious one, but it is by no means an easy one. Aside from the fact that we are surrounded by processed and unnatural foods, they are not always easily identified. While most of us know that corn chips, french fries, and McDonald's cheeseburgers fall into this category of foods to avoid, it is not nearly as obvious that many foods we may consider healthy such as yogurts, cheeses, and frozen meats and vegetables, may contain chemical preservatives and food colorings. Although we were told as kids ourselves that food colorings were harmless, there is considerable evidence that these artificial substances are common allergens and may exacerbate behavioral and attention deficit disorders. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a known excitotoxin and can lead to migraines. Most recently, the artificial sweetener Sucralose, which is essentially chlorinated sugar, has come under suspicion because it may contain a common byproduct of chlorine — dioxin — a known carcinogen that is linked to cancer, reproductive disorders, and immune system breakdown.
4. Increase your child's consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits – Another obvious yet incredibly vital factor. Vegetables should be your child's main source of carbohydrates because most of them are low glycemic and they are chocked full of vitamins and minerals. They are also an excellent source of fiber. The most difficult part about this change is getting your child to like vegetables. Dr. Joseph Mercola suggests getting the child involved in gardening or even letting your child help you to pick out vegetables at the grocery store at a young age as ways to spark a child's interest in vegetables.
5. Increase your child's consumption of quality proteins – It's getting easier. If you succeed at getting the child off of sugar this one comes naturally. Protein is essential for building lean muscle and connective tissue and the development of your child's immune system. Quality protein sources are meats from free range or grass fed animals, such as beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, or fish. Other excellent sources are eggs from free range chickens and organic, whole-milk yogurt (the low-fat variety contains too much sugar). Making sure your child gets protein with every meal will go a long way toward insuring a healthy, active life. If you are having difficulty getting your child to eat protein foods, it may all be in the form or consistency aspect of the food. For instance, many children will not eat beef or other red meats unless they are made into shapes that are more enticing for children, like little pillows or turnovers. There are cookbooks that spell out creative ways to prepare food for children.
6. Make sure your child's diet includes essential fatty acids, such as Omega 3's and Omega 6's – Essential fats are those fats that your body is unable to produce and must come from the diet. These are fats that occur naturally in certain nuts and animal products. The most important of these essential fats are Omega 3 and Omega 6. These fats are essential to brain development and the production of energy. Specific foods that contain these types of fats are flax seeds, salmon, free range eggs, walnuts, and certain cold-pressed oils. Fatty acid deficiencies are very common among children and are one of the leading causes of learning and behavioral disorders.
7. Reduce your child's exposure to pesticides, growth hormones and other harmful chemicals typically found in non-organic meat and produce – This is just about reducing your child's exposure to harmful toxins that can promote all kinds of health and behavioral problems. The best way to reduce your child's exposure to these toxic chemicals is to shop for organic produce and free-range or grass fed meat products. Conventionally farm-raised animals are given growth hormones and antibiotics, which may reek havoc on your child's immune system, reproductive system and many other metabolic systems in the body. We still do not know all of the ways these substances may be affecting us, but we do know that their impact has never been tested safe on human beings.
8. If your child gets sick or stomach aches frequently, give him or her a probiotic supplement once a day – The leading cause of immunity problems and digestive disorders among children is a lack of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This beneficial gut flora is first introduced to a baby in the mother's birth canal. These critters are necessary for a healthy immune system because our first line of defense from illness and infection is our gut. They are also essential for the production of digestive enzymes and B vitamins. These beneficial bacteria are usually compromised if the mother had a severe deficiency or if the mother or child has been exposed to antibiotics. In addition to immune and digestive problems, a lack of beneficial bacteria has been associated with allergies, diarrhea, ear infections, and even skin conditions. The easy and effective solution to this problem is to give your child a probiotic supplement. A good quality probiotic can be found in any health food store and should contain, at the minimum, acidophilus (for the small intestine) and bifidus (for the large intestine). These will come in either capsule, powdered, or liquid form. Ask your nutritional consultant for more guidance on selecting a good quality probiotic and how to administer it to your child.
9. Encourage your child to carry a water bottle with him or her to increase water consumption – A very common problem with children is dehydration. Water is so essential for healthy joints, regular elimination, energy, and basically every bodily function you can think of. The challenge is that hydration is generally discouraged in the school and even in the sports environment. This is an issue you will have to take up with your school board and/or your child's sports team coaches, but whatever it takes, you want your child to carry a water bottle with him or her at all times. Keeping yourself hydrated is a habit that must be encouraged and developed.
10. Reduce or eliminate your child's consumption of pasteurized milk – This is perhaps the most controversial one in the list because it is generally accepted that milk and dairy products are a child's most plentiful source of calcium. Also, our government has taught us that pasteurization is necessary to protect the consumer from food poisoning. Well, the former is true and the latter is not entirely true. Milk may be a rich source of dietary calcium, but so is yogurt and green leafy vegetables. The problem with pasteurization is that it destroys the enzymes that allow the body to breakdown and assimilate the nutrients in the milk. Hence, a better choice would be raw milk from an organic, free range cow. The fact is that raw milk is available in many states in the US and people have been drinking raw milk in Europe and many other places around the world for years, with very few reported problems. Those who are susceptible to infection from raw milk are the same people are more susceptible to major complications from the flu and other food-born bacteria and viruses. In other words, if your child is generally healthy, raw milk should not be a problem. However, if you are skeptical, by all means feed your child yogurt and cultured cheeses, which contain the beneficial enzymes he or she needs to properly digest and assimilate the nutrients.
Hopefully, this information has been helpful to you. Remember, how you feed your children is your choice and it can make a significant difference in his or her health and happiness.