As parents, we all want to do the best for our children. We advocate getting them into the best schools and making sure the best teachers are teaching them. We keep them physically active by shuttling them from one activity to the next. But sometimes we miss the mark when it comes to what we are feeding them. Our children are being left behind with the poor food they are fed. We are seeing an explosion of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and developmental disorders. In addition, many of our children have what used to be diseases only seen in adults, such as obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver. Many of these health conditions could be averted or improved with some simple changes in our children's diets. There are a few mistakes that I see parents making all of the time when it comes to feeding their children correctly. Good nutrition is critical for proper brain development and prevention of chronic disease. Feeding you child correctly will have a huge impact on all aspects of your child's health.
Below are the top 5 tips for getting your child off to the right start in life.
1. Avoid food coloring and additives as much as possible. In Europe, food coloring has been removed from the food supply because they recognize the connection between food coloring, food additives and behavioral and attention issues in children. It is a shame that we have not gotten it right yet in the United States. When you start to read labels, you will be amazed at the wide use of food coloring in our food supply. Red # 40, blue # 1 and yellow # 5 are just a few commonly used food colorings found in every day foods. I recommend that you look at every label and avoid foods with artificial coloring added to them. Even better, avoid most food products or foods with labels and go for whole foods as often as possible.
2. Avoid the Children's Menu - Most of the time, the children's menu is full of food low in nutrient value. Unfortunately, many of us mistakenly believe that our children will only eat foods that are commonly found on children's menus. These include foods like french fries, mac and cheese, pasta and burgers. As a society, we have been convinced that these are the foods that children should be eating on a regular basis. This could not be further from the truth. When children eat regularly from these limited children's menus, they are not exposed to a wide range of tastes and textures. As a result, children limit their food palate even more. The children's menu is often less expensive, so it seems like a great deal. But the foods provided are often high in refined carbohydrates and devoid of vegetables and phytonutrients. Instead, for the smaller children, share your meal with them. Get an extra side vegetable or salad and you will both have enough food. For older children, consider eating family style. Our family of four often orders four salads and three entrees to share. The amount of food is always sufficient, even though my kids are active growing teenagers and need a lot of calories.
3. Don't Skip Breakfast - A healthy breakfast is necessary for your child to have optimal performance at school and during their day. Children who have protein at breakfast will have an easier time focusing at school and have been found to perform better on tests. Make sure to include protein and healthy fats at breakfast to help keep your child's blood sugar more stable during the school day. Cereal often does not contain enough protein, and many cereals have added sugar. If you do give your child cereal, add some nuts protein such as walnuts or almonds. Other good sources of protein and healthy fats include eggs, smoked salmon, whole nuts and nut butters, and other meat, fish and poultry. I love making my kids a breakfast burrito with eggs, avocado and tomatoes.
4. Avoid too much added sugar - The American Heart Association recommends no more than three to four teaspoons of added sugar per day for young kids, and no more than five to eight teaspoons of added sugar per day for pre-teens and teens. (There are about four grams of sugar in one teaspoon, so a food with 16 grams of sugar has four teaspoons and 65 calories coming from added sugar.) The good news is that the nutrition label will be changing in 2017 to include the amount of added sugar in all food products. Sixty percent of our food products contain added sugar. When you start to look, you will be amazed. Even foods that we think of as healthy contain added sugar, like salad dressing, pasta sauce, protein bars, breads, and yogurts. One can of soda has about 40 grams of sugar (or 10 teaspoons of sugar). That is already more than the daily-recommended amount of sugar per day. A 32 oz. bottle of Gatorade has 56 grams of sugar (or 14 teaspoons), which equals 225 calories of just sugar.
5. Avoid Sports Drinks - Sports drinks are advertised heavily to children and parents, making us believe that they are going to make us faster, stronger and better athletes. Even more concerning is the trend of sports drinks companies which now sponsor many children's sports camps. This causes many children to get into the habit of consuming sports drinks on a regular basis. Many of these drinks, as already discussed, have large quantities of added sugar and food coloring that your children do not need. Unless your child is doing more than 2 hours of intense exercise at a time, there is no need for electrolyte replacement. If your child has multiple games in one day or is exercising for more than 2 hours at a time, there are a few good options for making sure they stay hydrated and energized. First of all, make sure they drink plenty of water before the practice or athletic event. If they will be participating for more than 2 hours, you can use diluted 100% juice or give them coconut water. Provide them with some oranges or a banana at half time along with regular water. Remember whole foods are full of electrolytes.
Keep in mind that simple adjustments in your child's diet can have a huge influence on their performance today and for their health in the future.
If you find this information helpful, please share with your friends and family!
Elizabeth W. Boham MD, MS, RD