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child eating ice creamGood news: According to a new study in JAMA, the overall diet of American kids has gotten better over the past couple decades.

Not-so-good news: More than half the kids in the US still eat poorly – too many processed foods, too much salt, not enough veg and fruit. 

Crunching 17 years’ worth of data from over 31,000 youth, ages 2 to 19, the researchers found a sharp decrease in kids with poor quality diets (from 76.8% to 56.1%) and a strong uptick in intermediate quality diets (from 23.2% to 43.7%). 

Still, less than 1% of kids had an overall “ideal” diet. Less than 1%!

The dominance of unhealthy eating, of course, has real long term consequences. For one, study co-author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian told Today, children’s risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes and obesity go way up. 

Having more than half of our children eating poor diets is really unacceptable, both for their own health and the associated health care costs over their lifetimes. 

Even more concerning is that Mozaffarian and his colleagues found that diets tended to get worse as children got older. For instance, in 2015-2016, the proportion of kids aged 2 to 5 having a poor diet was just under 40%. That number rose to 52.5% for kids aged 6 to 11 and to 66.6% for tweens and teens.  

These habits can easily continue into adulthood, notes Mozaffarian. 

There’s very good evidence that diets established in childhood and adolescence persist through life… so how kids eat at home, at school and when they’re out with friends really makes a big difference for the rest of their lives.

But back to good news: Research has shown that small dietary changes can lead to big benefits. Even some simple substitutions can help you get your kids on the way to healthier eating. Here are just a handful of ideas: 

Snack Swap

Instead of giving kids snacks like chips or Goldfish crackers, throw some cooked garbanzo or white beans in a blender with fresh garlic, olive oil, and a little salt. With cucumber slices or carrots, this quick and easy hummus makes a savory treat for home or school. 

kids eating healthy foodsSweeten Without Sugar

Ditch the sugary yogurt and instead, mix cut-up fruit into plain yogurt and sprinkle with cinnamon or ginger. The probiotics in the yogurt are great for gut and oral health – and the fruit offers a wealth of nutrients in addition to the taste of sweetness. 

Juice & Soda Switch

Juice and soda are big offenders when it comes to sugar and acid overload. Go with whole fruit instead of the juice. If the kids miss soda’s fizz, consider investing in a SodaStream or similar device. Not only is it cheaper and more environmentally friendly, you can also ensure that your fizz is fluoride-free. 

Pair Veg with Saturated Fats 

If eating lots of raw veggies occasionally makes you feel like a cow chewing in the pasture all day, try introducing them to healthy saturated fats. Try spinach sauteed in bacon grease, Brussels sprouts roasted with ghee, or a rainbow of peppers, onions, and mushrooms lightly cooked in a bit of coconut oil. Yum! 

What can be hardest, though, is remembering that you’re in charge, not the kids. It’s important to include them in decision-making, but as with things like screen time, toothbrushing, and homework, you get the final word. Don’t give into unhealthy demands, especially if you’re feeling tempted yourself!

The kids don’t choose whether they eat veggies or whether they brush, but they can provide input on which veggies they want in their lunchbox, just like you might let them choose which fluoride-free toothpaste they want. With the kids on the team and you as their coach, there’s no doubt you can win the healthy eating game!

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