Helping Kids Learn to Eat Healthy in a Food Environment That’s Anything But

No matter where you go or what you do – turn on the TV, log into email, wait for a movie to start, step inside just about any kind of a store – you’re apt to be bombarded with marketing for unhealthy food products.

One of the primary targets? Our kids.

kids watching screenAs we noted last week, kids are highly influenced to eat foods they see marketed on TV, one of many factors contributing to childhood obesity. Now, new research in Pediatrics shows how that trend goes for big screen offerings, as well.

For the study, 31 G- and PG-rated films from 2012 to 2015 were evaluated for their “obesity-promoting content and weight-stigmatizing messages.” The raters documented how frequently the content included eating or negative messages around weight.

Let’s just say the answer was “often.”

All 31 movies included obesity-promoting content; most common were unhealthy foods (87% of movies, 42% of segments), exaggerated portion sizes (71%, 29%), screen use (68%, 38%), and sugar-sweetened beverages (61%, 24%). Weight-based stigma, such as a verbal insult about body size or weight, was observed in 84% of movies and 30% of segments.

So on the one hand, you have depictions that suggest behaviors that contribute to weight gain, and on the other, weight gain is scorned. Talk about mixed signals!

Other research suggests that kids’ eating behavior may be directly affected by depictions in film. One recent study of product placement in films found that

branding and obesogenic messaging in children’s movies influenced some choices that children made about snack foods immediately following viewing, especially food with greatest exposure time in the film.

While such studies acknowledge that there’s more to learn about the long-term effects of this psychological game, it’s hard to see much good come of this, just reinforcement of the unhealthy eating patterns so predominant in our culture.

That’s why it’s all the more crucial that we provide more healthful models for our kiddos to follow. For just as kids may mimic what they see in the media, so they may just as well follow the lead of their parents and caregivers.

One of the main reasons parents turn to drive-thru, carryout, or frozen meals is simple convenience. We’re all busy. Our kids are busy. Pre-made meals can seem to save the day – but only if we’re thinking in the short term.

Consider the long-term inconveniences of the chronic health problems that arise from diet – oral and systemic alike – and the short term benefits shrink.

Fortunately, with a little planning and prep, healthful eating – real food you make at home from whole foods combined by human hands – can become just as convenient. Consider incorporating some of the following practices into your routine:

  1. No time to grocery shop? Many stores have started offering home delivery again or will bag the food and have it available for pickup. This can be a huge timesaver. Check with your local stores to see if they offer this service.

  2. Meal prep on days off. If there are one or two days during the week with fewer activities, try to spend a little time prepping veggies or marinating proteins. One of the biggest time-sucks is prepping veggies (some of the most important ingredients you can use). Chopping, dicing or marinating on the weekend can make for some easy cooking on the weeknights.

  3. When cooking, cook a little extra. Consider doubling recipes to have an entire meal ready for another night.

  4. Consider a pressure cooker to easily turn vegetables and protein into a quick soup. You can even bake potatoes or hard boil eggs in pressure cookers, in a fraction of the time.

  5. Conversely, consider a slow-cooker that you can start early then effectively ignore until meal time.

  6. Some restaurants are better than others. When you really do want someone else to do the cooking, consider restaurants that might include locally sourced foods or at least feature foods that are organic and sustainably raised. You may even find farm-to-table options that could be both healthy and educational for the family.

Even starting out by giving up one or two days of fast food can make a huge difference. And gradually, you may find that this becomes easier to incorporate into your every day routine (and easier on your wallet).

How to Handle Those Holiday Carbs!

holiday feastHolidays are filled with foods that you might normally try to avoid.

Dining room tables are covered with potatoes, stuffing, glazed vegetables and meats, marshmallow-topped casseroles, dumplings, breads, and more. Appetizer trays feature crackers and crostini and fried treats of all kinds. Fudge and candy plates abound. You may have invites already for holiday baking or cookie parties.

And of course, there are the sweet drinks to wash it all down, from hot chocolate to egg nog and holiday cocktails, sodas to holiday brews.

So it’s probably no surprise that we wind up consuming anywhere from 3000 to 4500 calories just on a single holiday feast.

If you’re looking to manage your carb intake over the holidays, you’re not alone. Of course, it may not be possible to remove them entirely – or even desirable, considering the strong ties between holiday foods and traditions.

Even so, replacing some standard sides with slightly healthier versions or subbing a few key ingredients can really make a difference. Here are 7 alternatives to help get you thinking creatively about your meals this holiday season:

  1. Consider an alternative eggnog like this from So Delicious – less than half the calories and a fraction of the carbs. Of course, it still contains some sugar. If you want to go sugar-free, there are great recipes online such as this one, which uses stevia in place of the sugar.

  2. Mix in some gluten-free or vegan recipes with some of your standards. You’ll find some recipes to get you started here and here.

  3. Don’t forget the salad! Salads can be very pretty with colorful vegetables, a little dried fruit, and some nuts or feta cheese.

  4. Consider soups thickened and made creamier with pureed vegetables such as carrots or squash.

  5. Try a side dish heavier in vegetables with less (or no) pasta, like this Butternut Squash & Cauliflower Casserole, for instance.

  6. Replace traditional noodles with spaghetti squash or spiralized vegetables.

  7. Sweet potato casserole, mixed with a little whole fat coconut milk and cinnamon, can be a great replacement for the standard pumpkin pie (and tastes very similar!).

And if you want to stick with tradition and carb out as you please?

Maybe think about a fitness or nutrition challenge with a few friends or coworkers after the season has passed. Or think about signing up for a holiday fun run. Getting in a quick 5K or one-mile run with your family or friends could be the start of a new tradition and a great way to introduce a balance of healthy living with holiday indulgence.

Image by Jessica Spengler

Changing the Narrative of Food

Healthy eating starts with whole food, real food, including lots of fresh produce. When you picture how it’s grown, you may imagine wide open spaces, fields spanning acres and acres.

But it can just as well happen on a much smaller scale, in urban and suburban areas alike. Think front yard gardens, rooftop and courtyard gardens, or any underutilized space. Many communities have unused or struggling properties that can be repurposed for flourishing community gardens.

In this TED Talk, Pam Warhurst describes how she and a group of others made it happen in her community of Todmorden in northern England, launching an initiative they came to call “Incredible Edible”:

Such programs are cropping up all over the world, including here in Arlington, where we have things like the Community Garden of UT Arlington and the Harvesting Hope Community Garden.

Consider supporting one of these or another community garden project. Volunteer or donate or buy from harvests put up for sale. Or follow Warhurst’s lead and create your own concept for an edible neighborhood landscape and make it a reality.

Already doing so? Share your experiences in the comments!

How Your Fridge Can Help You Survive the Holidays

food in refrigeratorWe’ve officially entered the holiday season. Thanksgiving has passed. Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve loom. The common link between all of these? Food. Glorious food in all its spectacular and traditional versions.

From the oil fried latkes, doughnuts and briskets of Hanukkah to the meat-centric Christmas dinner (with all the sides natch), not to mention plenty of candy, cookie, and pastry platters everywhere you go, the holidays can derail the even the best of health intentions.

Holiday celebrations and excess can certainly make it harder to get back to a healthy routine. What to do? What to do?

Sure, you could beat yourself up, bemoan your lack of willpower, but an easier – not to mention more positive – option is to start small and tackle the fridge. Of course, it’s a baby step in the scheme of things, but if your fridge is in order both during the holiday season and after, it might just prove a life preserver.

Keeping nutritious foods on hand help make cooking and eating healthy options a no-brainer. (It can also help extend your food budget, too!)

  1. Start with a plan.
    Make a shopping list of nutritious options based on your family’s preferences. Unless you’re a kitchen whiz who can easily throw stuff together on the fly, you may want to plan your dinner menu for a week at a time to ensure you’ll have what you need.

    • Vegetables and fruits including, kale, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, celery, greens, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, apples, oranges, pomegranates, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, melons and more. (Even better, buy what’s in season. Here’s a guide to seasonal produce here in Texas, and here’s a more general national guide.)
    • Beans and lentils can be purchased dry, then soaked, cooked, and stored in the fridge or freezer. From garbanzo, black, pinto, white and red beans to red, green or black lentils, each offers color, texture, and a quick protein option.
    • Meat, poultry, and eggs including whole chicken and turkey; ground poultry, beef and lamb; prime cuts of beef, pork, or lamb, and more. Fish is an excellent option, as well, but go for those lowest in mercury. The NRDC offers this handy shopper’s guide.
    • Whole grains and pseudo-grains, if you choose them, can be prepared ahead and stored in the fridge or freezer. Choose from an assortment of rice, farro, millet, chia, quinoa, and more.
  2. Pick a day to shop, clean, and prep.
    Whether you shop from an ongoing list or one that you write out in one fell swoop, do it on a day when you have time not just to shop but also to clean and prep the food items you buy. For many, a weekend day works best, especially if family members are around to help. This one day sets you up for a week of healthy eating options that will require minimal time in the kitchen on busier days.

  3. Store prepped food in sight and in glass.
    While “prepped food” is simply food that has been cleaned, cut and stored, getting it to that point can feel like a chore. But if you apply a sense of mindfulness while you prep, it seem less of a chore and more like self-care. Noticing the colors of the food you selected, the texture, the sound as you cut through it, and the fragrance – the food can nourish mind and body alike.

    Fitness trainer Kathy Kaehler offers some great tips on how to properly prep everything and keep it from spoiling.

    As for storage, there are some good reasons to opt for glass. For one, you can see everything at a glance. It’s amazing how, when we’re hungry, we just want to grab food and eat. The problem is that the easiest food to grab is often high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and salt. Prepping real food and storing it in glass makes it just as easy to grab as that bag of hyper-processed food product.

    But more, with glass, you don’t have to worry about plastic leeching into your food. It’s inert, and many containers can go from fridge to freezer or oven, making it convenient too.

Just as your fridge doesn’t have to be the enemy, neither do the holidays. With a little forethought and preparation, you can eat your way through them on your terms. Indulge as you choose, but remember: Too much of a good thing can sometimes just be too much of a good thing.

Image by USDA, via Flickr

Yet More Reasons to Take Diet Seriously

colorful fruit and vegetablesThe two best things you can do for a healthy smile are to make good hygiene routine and to eat healthfully. At minimum, the former includes regular brushing and flossing, but may also include practices like oil pulling and using an oral irrigator. The latter means basing your diet on whole, not hyper-processed, foods, especially fresh vegetables and other plant-based foods. It includes little to no added sugars or other refined carbs.

This is especially important for preventing gum disease, which is marked by rampant, chronic inflammation. Rich in antioxidants and other key nutrients, plant-based foods are anti-inflammatory. Sugars and refined carbs, on the other hand, fuel it. (The same goes for many animal-based foods.)

Of course, it’s not just your teeth and gums that benefit from this way of eating. Your whole body does. And as recent research suggests, it supports good mental health, as well.

The study, published this past October in BMC Psychiatry, looked at the effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on psychological distress. The dietary habits and mental health of more than 20,000 Swiss individuals over age 15 were assessed. The recommended produce consumption was a minimum 5 servings a day – 2 of fruit, 3 of veg. (This is in line with current US recommendations, as well).

The 5-a-day recommendation was met by 11.6 % of the participants with low distress, 9.3 % of those with moderate distress, and 6.2 % of those with high distress. Consumers fulfilling the 5-a-day recommendation had lower odds of being highly or moderately distressed than individuals consuming less fruit and vegetables.

In other words, more produce consumption, better mental health. This, the authors note, is in line with previous research.

As for the why, it may be the result of plant-based foods’ power to fight inflammation. As science is showing more and more, depression is an inflammatory condition. In fact, one study just published in Molecular Psychiatry suggests that fighting inflammation may help especially with persistent cases of depression.

Another factor may be the increased folate (a B vitamin) intake that comes from eating more fruit and veg. As the authors of the BMC Psychiatry study note,

Folate is a further substance in fruit and vegetables that has been shown to be linked to depression. A meta-analysis of observational studies showed significant inverse associations of folate status with depression. The included studies were mostly cross-sectional, but the result was also supported by one cohort study. The latter study hypothesized that folate increases methylation processes and the regulation of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin which, in turn, is associated with a lower risk of depression.

More, a healthful diet supports brain health, cellular regeneration and a healthy balance of gut flora. Research continues to show that the last is linked closely to mental health.

Interestingly, a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology found “a direct correlation between the severity of periodontal disease and the severity of depression in patients.”

Depression is associated with negligent oral health care and another mechanism proposed disturbance in the hypothalamic-pituitary axis system and hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid system, which can affect the periodontal status by affecting the immune system.

Of course, just as diet is only one part of oral health, it’s also just one part of the complicated mental health landscape. As Dr. Felice N. Jacka noted in a recent interview with BMC Psychiatry, many triggers can prompt depression and other mental health disorders.

It is important that we take a life course approach to resilience. One of the challenges is that so many of the environmental factors that impinge on the risks for mental disorders happen outside of the mental health sector. Thus it really does need a whole population approach. We need to protect people from vulnerability risk factors, such as child abuse and neglect, poverty, bullying, workplace stress, and social isolation, and target these by building resilience through education, social and emotional learning, and community-based interventions… Improving physical health and health behaviours, such as diet, physical activity and smoking, is really important.

But even if it is only a small part, diet should be taken seriously as it affects every aspect of your health, from your head to your toes. For though your health can, in theory, be segmented into categories, in reality, everything is connected.

Image by Joan Nova

Getting Kids to Eat Right

Kids are smarter than we think.

We try tricking them into eating good foods by offering bargains and rewards, but those tactics can backfire. Too easily, the lesson becomes that dessert is the good thing and the nutritious meal is something bad they have deal with to get to that good thing!

We try hiding fruits and veggies in comfort food. But while hiding pureed vegetables may give kids the same nutritious content, it still doesn’t help them learn to love whole, unprocessed produce or whole grains. And once the children find out that you’re tricking them, they may not trust the food you give them in the future.

And as for smoothies? They may be delicious but are not exactly what you’d call “tooth-friendly.”

Instead, it’s best to teach that healthy food is good in its own right.

organic_deliveryParents and caregivers are aware how bright children are, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a recent Psychology Science study found when kids were taught about the benefits of healthy foods, they chose to eat those foods more often.

Its authors banked on preschoolers’ natural curiosity. When they taught the kids about the nutritional value of the food they ate, kids were more open to trying nutritional foods and “more than doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables during snack time.”

This makes perfect sense. When we tell children why brushing and flossing is important, they understand and, more often than not, will practice good dental hygiene. When we explain why they can’t cross the street without an adult or without looking both ways, they will understand and listen.

Why not apply these same methods to eating?

In the above study, the authors taught with children’s books “that emphasized key concepts about food and nutrition, including the importance of variety, how digestion works, the different food groups, characteristics of nutrients, and how nutrients help the body function.” But while you might not have access to those same books for your kids, there are plenty of great resources out there to help you teach them.

Here are a few to get you started:

  • A good place to begin is with “Principles of a Healthy Diet” from the Weston A. Price Foundation. Dr. Price was a pioneering dentist who discovered traditional diets found in the nonwestern world promote healthy teeth. This site offers clear guidelines you can consider for your own family’s diet.
  • The USDA offers guidelines for the American diet. You may remember the food pyramid the USDA encouraged, but that’s since been replaced with My Plate. It’s a good place for both kids and adults to learn about nutrition. Note the section specifically for preschoolers.
  • Dr. Sears’ “ABC’s of Teaching Nutrition to Your Kids” has advice on kids’ books about eating, taking children to see where their food comes from (grocery stores and farms, for instance), introducing new foods to toddlers and serving foods across the color spectrum.
  • If you don’t want to go through the entire alphabet, there’s a short but helpful article in the Los Altos Town Crier on teaching kids about nutrition.
  • Finally, there are books for kids about nutrition. Here, you’re encouraging both healthy eating and a love of reading! For titles, check out this list from the School Nutrition Association. Or visit Super Kids Nutrition for reviews of children’s books on food.

Don’t expect your child to become a healthy eater overnight after reading just one book. It’s consistently practicing good eating habits and teaching children about the food they eat that can create healthy eaters. As you know too, no study is needed to show that kids emulate the behaviors of the adults they love. We are their models. If we want them to eat well, we must do the same.

Image by sean dreilinger, via Flickr