Healthy Diet: Children’s Nutrition
September marks several nutrition-related health observances and I would like to take this opportunity to touch on family nutrition. Specifically, the most common questions that parents ask regarding their children’s diet.
How much fruit and vegetables do children need?
We all know that our kids need fruit and veggies and we struggle everyday, trying to win the feeding/eating war. But do we know how much our kids really need? The common nutritional advice is that we need 5 servings of fresh fruit and veggies each day. Easy enough except that how big is a serving? Is a serving the same for a child and for an adult? The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has a great tool in calculating the amount of fruit and veggies everybody above the age of 2 needs. By just entering your age, gender, and physical activity, you get your personal food requirements result in terms of cups. What’s more, it even tells you what amounts to a cup. Finally, the sites also has recipes, and features “Fruit and Veggies” of the month. It’s chili peppers and figs for September.
Which products should you buy?
Starting August, the food industry in the US has adapted the so-called green checkmark. The checkmark is part of Smart Choices Program, a US-wide collaboration of scientists, health advocates and food industry representatives to help consumers make healthier choices at the supermarket.
In order to use the green checkmark, food products need to meet certain criteria (Nutrition Criteria for the Smart Choices Program) set by Smart Choices. The program is implemented by the American Society for Nutrition, which also makes sure of maintaining the scientific integrity of the program and checking for conflicts of interest. The standards for the greencheck are based on:
- Nutrients that need to be limited, e.g. fats, sugar, and sodium
- Nutrients that need to be enforced, e.g. vitamins, minerals, and fiber)
- Food groups that to be encouraged, e.g. fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free dairy products
All in all, the criteria cover 19 categories for products found in the supermarket, including cereals, processed fruits and vegetables, breads and pasta, meat, dairy, snacks, and sauces and dressings.
In addition to the greencheck mark, the food manufacturer is already required to display on the front of the package the calorie per serving and the number of servings per package to help us keep to our daily calorie needs.
Do we need to restrict our kids’ diet?
Forbidding certain types of food has high chances of backfiring, according to a study by obesity experts at Pennsylvania State University. It seems that the key factor in weight control is a child’s inhibitory control, which is similar to self-control. Those who lack self-regulation are most likely to be overweight before the age of 15. Low self-control combined with strong parental restriction seem to be a dangerous combination that drives the child towards the forbidden, and therefore more attractive food. Tips to reinforce your child’s inhibitory control are:
- Do not keep restricted food in the house, thus lessening the necessity to “forbid.”
- Find healthier alternatives, e.g. sugar-free or fat-free version of the forbidden snacks (see below).
- Provide different choices. Rather than telling your child “eat this, eat that”, it is better to ask “which would you prefer, the pear or the apple?” Take him/her to the supermarket and allow him to choose something that meets certain criteria (such as the abovementioned greecheckmark). By giving your child the right to choose within certain limits, you give him/her some degree of control over his/her diet.
What about snacks?
Snacking is not that bad. A recent study shows that many of the snacks that kids love – including popcorn – actually contains lots of antioxidants called polyphenols. And whole grain cereals, in addition to fibers, have comparable antioxidant content to fruit and vegetables. However, it is easy to binge on snacks and cereals, according to the researchers. Breakfast cereals contain lots of sugar and salty snacks contain lots of sodium. The key therefore is moderation and keeping to the suggested serving sizes.