It’s important to maintain an ongoing nutrition dialogue with your kids. Sometimes we take for granted that our kids understand what it means to make healthy food choices consistently. Make sure you’re on the same page as your kids when it comes to healthy living. Try to get them involved in the process of food preparation. It can be fun and will help to foster a healthy relationship with food. And, for better or worse, we are our kids’ role models. Practice what you preach. If we don’t walk the talk, we lose our credibility.
Here are some suggestions that will empower your kids to make quality food choices, not just today and tomorrow, but throughout their lives:
- Food label literacy – teach your kids how to read food labels. Look at both the ingredients and the nutrition facts. In any product category, look for the item with the shortest ingredient list. The first ingredient is always the biggest. If the first or second or third ingredient is sugar (there are now close to 40 types of sugar used in processed foods), you want to avoid that food product. And pay attention to serving size when reading the nutrition facts.
- Avoid refined, processed sugar and carbs. You’ve probably heard the phrase, ‘if it’s white, it ain’t right’ or ‘the whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.’ While these slogans may sound harsh, the advice is sound. White products, including white rice, white bread, bagels, potatoes, pasta, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods are full of empty calories. The human body processes white flour much like it does sugar – it all gets converted to glucose. There is no reason to be eating these from a nutritional standpoint. Filling up on processed food displaces other nutrient dense foods that our bodies require for optimal health. And finally, eating white flour and sugar products increases your risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers.
- Avoid partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Our bodies process sugar and HFCS in the same way – both are harmful – but HFCS is a marker for a highly processed food. These ingredients are not benign. They are toxic and can wreak havoc on our bodies.
- Avoid foods that make health claims. Don’t be fooled by big words or pictures on the front of packages – these are the self-defined, incredibly misleading health claims that the FDA has allowed food companies to put on their packaging. Real, healthy foods do not brag about being healthy, nor do they come in a package (e.g., does broccoli boast about it’s nutritional benefits?). Always look for the label on the back or side to tell the real story.
- Fiber is your friend. Getting enough fiber is key to a healthy body. Fiber is only found in the plant world. Many people do not get enough fiber because they are eating nutrient deficient, processed food and not eating enough whole foods. A whole food is a food with only one ingredient – itself. It refers to food that is closest to how it appears in nature.
- Avoid ‘low-fat’ or ‘non-fat’ products. The low fat campaign that started in the 1970’s has actually made us fat. The campaign, promoted by the government and big food companies, was based on faulty science. Low fat, ironically, means it’s going to be fattening because more sugar has been added to make up for the loss of flavor. Dietary fat is not a major determinant of body fat. In other words, eating fat does not make you fat. Eating sugar and refined foods makes you fat.
- Include healthy fats in your diet. Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and certain fish are critical components of a healthy diet. Many of us are seriously deficient in omega-3s. We need to shift our thinking about fat.
- Stay away from food that has been fortified. “Fortified” means it’s devoid of vitamins and minerals. The reason it says fortified is because it has been processed and all of the natural vitamins and nutrients have been removed. We don’t know how to throw vitamins back in.
- Stay away from soda. People tend to treat liquid calories as different from food calories and don’t count them – so they end up consuming more calories in the end. And soda has no nutritionally redeeming value. It does not come with any protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or fiber. However, it is not the concept of empty calories that is the most worrisome; it is the fact that sugar and HFCS (U.S. soda companies now put HFCS in soda because it is cheaper than sugar) are actually harmful to our bodies. Sugar in a liquid form, as it is in soda, is very rapidly absorbed by the body. This causes big spikes in insulin, which can induce a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is now considered to be the fundamental problem in obesity and the underlying defect in type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia and many cancers. Diet soda is no better. Evidence is mounting that diet soda leads to weight gain, not weight loss. This is due to the artificial sweeteners in diet soda. Artificial sweeteners trigger hunger, making us eat and drink more. My advice – drink water!
- Exercise! As David Katz, a physician and director of Yale’s Prevention Research Center says, “Good nutrition without physical activity is the sound of one hand clapping.” Exercise is the other half of the healthy living equation. The benefits of exercise are indisputable. It is critical that kids get out there and move. Dr. Katz likes to say, ‘it’s what we do with our forks and our feet that count.’
Food has the power to harm and the power to heal. Every time you put something in your mouth, you are choosing on which side of that equation you will fall. Why not stack the odds in our kids’ favor by teaching them about the power of food.