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Healthy Choices: Nutrition in Childhood

Healthy Choices: Nutrition in Childhood

© 2006 Wellness Clubs of


A solid foundation is critical to the long-term success of any venture. When a skyscraper is under construction, weeks or months pass with no visible progress as holes are dug, steel reinforcements placed, and concrete footings and foundation walls poured. Once the foundation has been laid, the visible structure often seems to appear overnight.

When the importance of laying a good foundation is considered, the long-term health of children growing up in the United States today is in serious jeopardy. Sound nutritional principles are being ignored by the vast majority of parents and others responsible for overseeing the dietary habits of children and adolescents, and the consequences are already becoming apparent.

The percentage of children between the ages of 6 and 11 who are overweight has doubled over the past two decades, while the prevalence of overweight teenagers has more than tripled. This is alarming, for studies have shown an individual who is overweight as a child often becomes morbidly obese as an adult.

The number of childhood and teen diabetics has increased dramatically. Today, one in three newly diagnosed childhood diabetics has Type 2 diabetes, the type of diabetes that was once seen only in adults. It is now estimated that one out of every three children will develop diabetes during their lifetime.

Investigators have also documented a significant rise in blood pressure in children and adolescents between 1988 and 2000. In addition, Mayo Clinic researchers reported in 2003 that the incidence of forearm fractures in boys has increased by 33 percent and that of girls by over 50 percent over the past thirty years.

One needs look no further than children and teen eating habits to see a reason for the dire health statistics. The dietary patterns are abysmal.

.Nearly two-thirds of children and adolescents in the United States eat diets high in saturated fat, while only twenty percent eat recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. This statistic is overly optimistic, for when fruit and vegetable intake is examined more closely it is found that the reported servings consist almost exclusively of fruit juice.

A third of infants and toddlers between 7 and 24 months of age receive no fruits or vegetables. When the type of vegetables consumed by the other toddlers is examined it is found that French fries are the most common. (When did potatoes become vegetables? Most of us grew up on “meat, potatoes, & a vegetable” for supper.)

Almost half of 7 month olds are given some type of sweet beverage or dessert and two thirds of toddlers consume a baked dessert daily. Twenty percent eat candy on a daily basis and nearly half are routinely given a sweetened beverage.

The diet does not improve when toddlers become preschoolers. A 1999 survey of middle and upper socioeconomic families revealed that the most common foods eaten by children between the ages of two and five were fruit drinks (not fruit juice), carbonated beverages, 2 % milk, and French fries. Vegetables were rarely consumed and dominated the children’s “least favorite foods” list.

French fries continue to dominate the diet of older children and adolescents, accounting for one fourth of all “vegetable” intake. Nutrient rich dark colored vegetables are rarely eaten and only one in five regularly receives five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Only 1 % of children and adolescents eat a diet that meets the recommendations of the United States Department of Agriculture, the body that sets national dietary guidelines.

Specific nutrient intake is correspondingly low. Mean dietary levels of common nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin D, folic acid, and zinc do not meet the minimum Recommended Daily Allowances. Since RDAs fall well below the optimum levels of nutrients required for good health, the situation is alarming.

Only fifteen percent of teens are receiving adequate calcium. Between 1978 and 1998 the average intake of carbonated beverages doubled among adolescent girls and tripled among adolescent boys. Statistics are not available for infants and children, but it is no longer uncommon to see an infant or toddler sucking on a bottle filled with Coca Cola or a similar soft drink.

The primary blame for the pathetic dietary habits of children in the United States lies on their parents, who have, to a great extent, abdicated their role in guiding children’s food and beverage choices. Food industry executives, anxious to capture larger portions of the $27 billion annual sales in the children’s food and beverage market, have been happy to assume that responsibility. Retailers market heavily to children, primarily through television advertising, and their efforts are highly successful. It has been found that children begin requesting foods and beverages by brand name at age two and that they are largely directing family food purchases by age eight.

Infants, toddlers, and children are not capable of making wise dietary choices. Good eating and drinking habits must be instilled under parental supervision, even if this means turning off the television to limit the influence of those who would sacrifice the health of a generation to profit from the sale of highly sweetened cereals, candy, beverages, desserts and salty snacks.

Good eating habits must be instilled early in life. While peer pressure will cause some shifting in their habits, adolescents who have been given guidance in their formative years will be much more likely to consume reasonable items than those who have grown up on sodas, Big Macs, and Skittles.

Given the grim statistics and grave prognoses of American children, what choices parents should be making to improve their children’s current and future health? Knowing that the average annual sugar consumption of fifteen pounds per person in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century jumped to over 150 pounds by the turn of the twenty-first century, they need to look to the past to create a better future.

Planning a sound diet begins with making wise beverage choices. Carbonated beverages, which are currently being consumed at the rate of 557 twelve ounce cans – 52.4 gallons - annually, must be eliminated from the diet. The consumption of fruit drinks, which typically contain less that 10 % fruit juice while being laced with sugar, dyes, and artificial flavorings, should be reduced significantly.

Purified water should be the beverage of choice from infancy through adulthood. There is no justification for giving an infant or toddler a bottle containing apple juice, which is currently the most common choice as a first beverage, nor is there any need to sweeten or flavor the water in any way. Giving babies water rather than milk, juices, or other sugar-containing liquids will go far to prevent “Baby Bottle Tooth Decay”, a process that is extremely destructive to the infant’s teeth. If the water is free of chlorine and other contaminants, infants will find it satisfying and come to prefer it over sweetened drinks.

Consumption of cow’s milk should be limited for at least four reasons. When cow’s milk is introduced to infants below a year of age it tends to cause microscopic blood loss in the intestinal tract. This can lead to iron deficiency and anemia. This does not apply to infant formulas based upon cow’s milk as they have been modified to prevent this consequence.

While cow’s milk is heavily promoted as a source of calcium, drinking milk results in a net loss of calcium. This is because the high animal protein content of milk leaves an acidic residue that must be neutralized in the body by calcium and other minerals. Two large studies have demonstrated that as the amount of cow’s milk consumed over the course of a lifetime increases the risk of sustaining a hip fracture also increases.

A significant portion of the population is relatively deficient in lactase, the enzyme needed to digest milk sugar. Lactase deficient children will experience abdominal pain and bloating and may develop diarrhea if given more than eight ounces of milk daily.

A further consequence of drinking cow’s milk is the stimulation of mucus production in the respiratory tract. This can predispose infants and young children to middle ear infections and other respiratory challenges.

Whole grains should be a part of a child’s diet because they are high in fiber, good sources of minerals and B vitamins, and low in sugar and saturated fat. Finding whole grains that are free of added sugar is not as easy, however. Cheerios, a traditional first “finger food” continues to offer its whole grain, no sugar added version, but General Mills is now promoting versions such as “Honey Nut”, “Berry Burst”, “Frosted”, and “Apple Cinnamon” that contain ten to twelve grams (two to three teaspoons) of added sugar per serving.

Post continues to carry original shredded wheat, which has no added sugar, but also promotes “Frosted” and “Honey Nut” varieties with 12 grams of sugar added. Quaker continues to manufacture ground oats, but promotes sweetened “instant” versions more heavily.

Cereals heralded as “organic” often contain high amounts of sugar as well. It is important to read package labels to determine whether or not the product under consideration is low in refined sugar and free of dyes and preservatives.

Oils should be part of a child’s diet as well. Essential fatty acids, which are found in the oils, are needed for brain and nervous system function, optimum vision, skin health, and control of inflammation in the body. I have personally seen many children break their cycle of ear infections and avoid surgery by eliminating milk and adding one teaspoon of flax oil to their daily diet for every thirty pounds of body weight.

Richly colored vegetables should be a standard part of the diet. Deep green vegetables such as broccoli, orange vegetables like carrots, yellow vegetables including squash and sweet potatoes, and red vegetables such as tomatoes all confer substantial health benefits. They are rich sources of carotinoids and phytonutrients like lycopene, lutein, which are essential to good health.

Legumes, which include beans and peas, should also be eaten regularly. These are excellent sources of fiber. Fiber helps maintain regular bowel function, which helps prevent the accumulation of toxins in the body. Soy is a legume (soy bean), and may be safely eaten by children. It provides a valuable source of protein, and, like other legumes, is high in fiber. Reports suggesting that soy consumption will cause hormonal abnormalities and destroy the thyroid gland are unsubstantiated. Studies have found no developmental differences between teens fed soy-based formulas and those given cow’s milk formulas as infants.

Fruits, which are high in nutrients such as vitamin C, are good choices for desserts and snacks. If eaten with the skin, they are also good sources of fiber.

Servings of meat and poultry should be kept small, complimenting other foods rather than dominating a meal. Population studies around the world have demonstrated that diets that are low in animal products are associated with the lowest risk of cancer, heart disease, and degenerative diseases. There is no better time to start promoting long-term wellness than during childhood.

I am advocating that children be fed a bland, tasteless diet and that they not be allowed to eat “fast-food” or enjoy parties with their friends. Children should enjoy a wide variety of foods at home and be taught to choose wisely when eating in other settings.

I have three granddaughters who are currently three, three, and six years of age. Not one of them has ever had to be taken to a physician because of an illness. They are happy, seem well-adjusted, and are meeting all growth and development standards.

Foods they typically eat for breakfast include whole wheat toast with real peanut butter (the kind that needs to be stirred to mix in the oil), oatmeal, Cheerios, fresh seasonal fruit, yogurt, graham cracker sticks with peanut butter and eggs. They enjoy whole wheat pancakes with natural maple syrup as well.

Lunch and dinner include entrees such as chicken, veggie burgers, cheese pizza, fish, and turkey slices. Common vegetable choices include green beans, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash. Mashed potatoes are also offered from time to time. Legumes including many styles and varieties of beans are often part of the meal.

Snacks usually consist of items like natural fruit leathers, yogurt squeeze tubes, Cheerios, “Pirate’s Booty” (a packaged snack food made from rice and corn), graham crackers, fresh fruits, unsweetened applesauce, mixed fruit, and string cheese or cheese curds.

When eating out, typical choices include grilled chicken chunks with broccoli or applesauce, cheese pizza, or a bean burrito with rice, guacamole, and salsa. Three year old Abbie can spot a “Burrito Store” from at least three blocks away.

Cake and ice cream are occasional treats at birthday parties or other special occasions. They do not crave or demand sweets, probably because their parents chose to delay the introduction of sweetened foods until eighteen months of age and, most significantly, because sweetened snacks and desserts are not kept in their homes. Their parents understand that they should not expect their children to make good food choices if they themselves are regularly indulging in unhealthy ones.

All three children prefer water to other beverage choices. They have orange juice on occasion, but they do not expect it or demand it. They ask for water when they want something to drink during the course of the day.

The answer to reversing the alarming trends toward disease in our nation’s children is not complex nor is it out of reach. It is simply to return to the eating and drinking habits most of their great-grandparents and many of their grandparents knew as children. The answer is to revert to the norms of the past to create healthy traditions for the future.

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