A parent's first instinct, when she sees her child gaining weight, is to deny him or her those extra snacks and nibbles. But that's a losing strategy, just like any fad diet. One of the reasons diets fail is because nobody likes to feel as though they are denying themselves — in a land of plenty, we don't want to feel left out. And children are no different. Why should some other kid get a snack and your child miss out? Besides, skipping a snack is a guaranteed way to feel hungry, and a child's hunger is a VIP first-class ticket to Candy Aisle Meltdown.
Instead of even thinking about cutting down on your child's food intake, think of expanding his or her palette. Here are some simple rules that can teach your child to swim — no matter how rough the nutritional seas may become.
RULE #1: NEVER SKIP BREAKFAST. EVER.
Yes, mornings are crazy. But they're also our best hope at regaining our nutritional sanity. A 2005 study synthesized the results of 47 studies that examined the impact of starting the day with a healthy breakfast. Here's what they found:
1. Children skip breakfast more than any other meal. Skipping is more prevalent among girls, older children, and adolescents.
2. People who skip breakfast are more likely to take up smoking or drinking, less likely to exercise, and more likely to follow fad diets or express concerns about body weight. Common reasons cited for skipping were lack of time, lack of hunger, or dieting.
3. On the day of the surveys, 8 percent of 1- to 7-year-olds skipped, 12 percent of 8- to 10-year-olds skipped, 20 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds skipped, and 30 percent of 15- to 18-year-olds skipped.
Bad news. And sure, it would seem to make sense that skipping breakfast means eating fewer calories, which means weighing less. But it doesn't work that way. Consider:
Breakfast eaters tend to have higher total calorie intakes throughout the day compared with skippers, but they also take in significantly more fiber, calcium, and other micronutrients. Breakfast eaters also tend to consume less soda and french fries, and more fruits, vegetables, and milk.
Breakfast eaters are approximately 30 percent less likely to be overweight or obese. (Think about that — kids who eat breakfast eat more food, but weigh less!)
There's a big difference between mindless munching and strategic snacking. Snacking with a purpose means reinforcing good habits, keeping your child's metabolic rate high, and filling the gaps between meals with the nutrients a child's body craves.
In the two decades leading up to the 21st century (1977 to 1996), salty-snack portions increased by 93 calories, and soft drink portions increased by 49 calories. This data comes from the Nationwide Food Consumption Survey and the Continuing Survey of Food Intake, which together create a sample of 63,380 people ages 2 and older. So when you give your kid an individual bag of chips and a soda — the same snack you might have enjoyed when you were 10 — he's ingesting 142 more calories than you did. Feeding him that just twice a week means he'll gain an extra pound within a year, just because of the additional calories.
Need snack ideas? Try popcorn. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists it as a viable means by which to increase whole-grain consumption. (This doesn't work if the popcorn's saturated with butter and salt.) A study of popcorn consumers published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that popcorn eaters have a 22 percent higher intake of fiber and 250 percent higher intake of whole grains than non-popcorn-eaters do. Other great choices include not just the low-cal stuff (vegetables and fruit) but more filling fare like unsalted nuts and even dark chocolate, which is packed with antioxidants and even some fiber. The point is not to deny food, but to teach our children to crave foods that are healthy for them.
Snacks aren't the only thing that's increased wildly in portion size. Since 1977, hamburgers have increased by 97 calories, french fries by 68 calories, and Mexican foods by 133 calories, according to the Nationwide Food Consumption Survey.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at 63,380 individuals' drinking habits over a span of 19 years. The results show that for children ages 2 to 18, portions of sweetened beverages increased from 13.1 ounces in 1977 to 18.9 ounces in 1996.
One easy way to short-circuit this growing trend? Buy smaller bowls and cups. A recent study at the Children's Nutrition Research Center in Houston, Texas, shows that 5- and 6-year-old children will consume a third more calories when presented with a larger portion. The findings are based on a sample of 53 children who were served either 1- or 2-cup portions of macaroni and cheese.
RULE #4: DRINK RESPONSIBLY
Too many of us keep in mind the adage "watch what you eat," and we forget another serious threat to our children's health: We don't watch what they drink. One study found that sweetened beverages constituted more than half (51 percent) of all beverages consumed by fourth through sixth grade students. The students who consumed the most sweetened beverages took in approximately 330 more calories a day than did those who drank only small amounts or no sweetened drinks at all. What's more, they ate less than half the amount of whole fruit.
One important strategy is to keep cold, filtered water in a pitcher in the fridge. You might even want to keep some cut-up limes, oranges, or lemons nearby for kids to flavor their own water. A U.K. study shows that in classrooms with limited access to water, only 29 percent of students meet their daily H2O needs. Free access to water leads to higher intake.
And don't forget milk. Growing boys and girls create at least 40 percent of their adult bone mass during adolescence, and 73 percent of the calcium in the U.S. food supply comes from dairy. Children who do not receive adequate amounts of calcium are at an increased risk of bone disease later in life.
As it is with all things, a parent's example is a critical determinant as to whether a child will drown him- or herself in soda. A Minnesota study shows that children are three times more likely to drink soda five or more times a week when their parents drink it regularly.
RULE #5: EAT MORE WHOLE FOODS (and fewer science experiments)
Here's a rule of healthy eating that will serve you well when picking out foods for your family: The shorter the ingredient list, the healthier the food. (One of the worst foods we've ever found, the Baskin Robbins Heath Shake, has 73 ingredients — and, by the way, a whopping 2,310 calories and more than 3 days' worth of saturated fat! Whatever happened to the idea that a milkshake was, um, milk and ice cream?) And don't think that you're the only one who's confused: The FDA maintains a list of more than 3,000 ingredients that are considered safe to eat, and any 50 of them could wind up in your next box of mac 'n' cheese.
According to USDA reports, most of the sodium in Americans' diets comes from packaged and processed foods. Naturally occurring salt accounts for only 12 percent of total intake, while 77 percent is added by food manufacturers.
RULE #6: SET THE TABLE
Children in families with a more structured mealtime exhibit healthier eating habits. Among middle-school and high-school girls, those whose families ate together only one or two times a week were more than twice as likely to exhibit weight control issues compared with those who ate together three or four times a week.
Of course, the notion of 6 p.m. dinnertime and then everyone into their PJs is a quaint one, but it hardly fits within a society where both Mom and Dad work, where the office may call at any time day or night, and where our kids have such highly scheduled social lives that the delineation between "parent" and "chauffeur" is sometimes difficult to parse. While we can't always bring the family together like Ozzie Nelson's (or, heck, even like Ozzy Osbourne's), we can make some positive steps in that direction. Keep one dinner night sacred — no social plans, no school projects, no extra work brought home from the office. And although it's not ideal, keeping the family ritual just once a week gives parents the opportunity to point out what is and isn't healthy at the dinner table.
Another smart move: Get your kids involved in cooking. Make a game of trying to pack the most healthful ingredients into your meals. A Texas study shows that children can be encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables by giving them goals and allowing them to help in preparation. In a classroom curriculum program called Squire's Quest, nearly 700 fourth graders were asked to select a recipe to prepare at home that included fruit, fruit juice, or a vegetable. Among those who completed the study, the average increase was one serving of fruit or vegetables a day. Those who completed more of the recipes showed the biggest improvements.
Take a look at the label on your loaf of sliced bread. Then take a look at the label on your ketchup. Now, for the coup de grâce, take a look at the label on a package of Twizzlers, or Jolly Ranchers, or Nerds. As different as they may seem, chances are these foods all contain the same ingredient: high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. According to the USDA, high-fructose corn syrup constitutes more than 40 percent of the caloric sweeteners used in U.S. foods and beverages. Now consider this: In 1970, high-fructose corn syrup accounted for less than 1 percent of all caloric sweeteners.
Why is this so bad? It's not because HFCS is more dangerous for you than sucrose; in fact, most recent data suggests that the body metabolizes HFCS the same way it does ordinary sugar. No, the major concern is that HFCS — a derivative of corn that's cheaper to produce than sugar and has a longer shelf life — is being added to foods that you'd never imagine would need sugar. But as Americans have been trained to develop a more intense sweet tooth, marketers have begun adding cheap sugar substitutes into everything from tomato sauce to wheat bread. And that pads everything we eat with extra calories. Today, the average American consumes 132 calories' worth of HFCS every day.
To completely avoid HFCS, you'd have to give up eating packaged foods, and that's just not practical for most families. Instead, become a savvy label reader and eliminate foods, not just with HFCS, but with any form of sugar at the top of the ingredient list.