As parents, we want what is best for our children. We make sure they have warm clothes in the winter and wear sunscreen in the summer. We take them to doctors appointments, insist they wear helmets when riding their bikes and always make sure they buckle up in the car. We feed them healthy meals at home but let them have special treats, snacks and that occasional soda in moderation. But even "moderation" can be harmful.
As a child, I was part of a meat and potatoes family -- because that is what my father liked. Our vegetables were prepared with butter. We drank soda with our dinners. Dessert and snacking at night on chips and ice cream was the norm. My salads consisted of iceberg lettuce drenched in a mayonnaise and ketchup mixture, my father's dressing. Milk was whole and the only thing we consumed that was low fat was fruit aka the occasional apple or banana. For the first 18 years of my life, that is how I ate.
When I went to college, things weren't different. While there were a variety of foods I might be able to choose from in the dinning halls, I always stuck with what I knew and was drawn to the carbohydrates, fat laden, sweet foods that were a "comfort" to me.
The habits formed at an early age lead by parents can set our children up for significant health risks down the road, at a point where there is nothing we can do for them! It is imperative that as parents, we educate ourselves and strive to make the healthy decisions for them and with them. What they eat and how they move at an early age will help lead them down a healthy path in life.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are a large culprit in the obesity epidemic in this country, and we aren't just talking about soda. Vitamin water, sports drinks, chocolate milk, lemonades, ice teas and even fruit juices are vehicles for added sugar. A 20 oz. soda has more than 16 teaspoons of sugar, almost twice as much sugar as the American Heart Association's daily recommendation of 6-9 teaspoons a day.
As parents, we need to be aware of not only what foods we bring in the house to feed our children, but what foods they are accessing and what messages they are "fed" at school! Food and beverage companies spent at least $149 million marketing to children in the school environment in 2009, according to the Federal Trade Commission. My daughter's middle school serves pizza made, delivered and served right out to the box from a national chain in her cafeteria. While the serving would need to meet nutritional guidelines in order to be served, it doesn't change the fact that the kids are being marketed to as they eat. The snacks sold to kids at school are no different. They might be labeled reduced fat and have lower fat, calories and sodium counts, but they are not products that can be bought outside of school. These companies are creating products that meet the government nutritional standards to be sold in school but are manipulating our children and creating brand loyalty that leads them to foods that are fuller in fat, sodium, and sugar.
I'm willing to bet your school has already had at least one restaurant fundraiser (or six) this school year alone. What seems like easy money to make for the school by ordering a pizza, going to a local family friendly restaurant or picking up quick take-out will cost your family money down the road. The $4 your school effortlessly made from your family of four eating $40 worth of burgers, fries and a dessert is putting our children at serious risk for developing a myriad of health issues in the future. Is it worth it?
It can be a challenge as parents to know how to best provide a healthy start to our children, but there is an organization that is helping. The American Heart Association's Voices for Healthy Kids aims to help all children aim for a healthy weight through proper nutrition and exercise by prioritizing six issues:
- Improving the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks in schools;
- Reducing consumption of sugary drinks;
- Protecting children from marketing for unhealthy foods and drinks;
- Increasing access to affordable healthy foods;
- Increasing access to safe spaces for physical activity; and
- Helping schools and youth programs increase children's physical activity levels.
Parents, we are here to influence our children and guide them down a healthy path in life. We need to provide them with healthy choices at home, raise our voices to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks and provide opportunities for them to get off our couches and move. What we do today will help them survive and thrive for years to come! Become a part of the change and join Voices for Healthy Kids to make sure all children in American can get a healthy start in life. Just visit heart.org/kids.
This article was previously published on the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association blog for the State of Connecticut.