Healthy Eating for Children and Families

Increasingly, medical professionals and consumers alike are becoming aware of the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet, to promote good general health and avoid visits to the hospital.

But when it comes to what, specifically, constitutes healthy eating, different ideologies exist. Some nutritionists maintain, for instance, that different people — or different body types — require different foods and different nutrients, to feel satiated and stay healthy. However, the overall consensus appears to be that as humans, we all require the same kinds of nourishment, to make our bodies function optimally.

Along the same lines, parents might wonder whether or not their children require different types of foods from those that are consumed by adults.

The general principle, if you listen to most experts, is that children pretty much require the same nutrients to grow into healthy adults as do grown-ups. With a few exceptions. For example, doctors believe that young children usually require more fat in their diets than adults: a higher-fat diet seems to be optimal for small children, as fat is an important component of the growth process. Insufficient fat in a young child’s diet has been found to stunt growth and cause developmental delays. So, whereas adults might do well to drink low-fat or nonfat milk, whole milk is best for younger children.

Another dietary difference between younger children and adults is that, due to the much smaller size of a young child’s stomach, a child might do better eating smaller, but more frequent meals than an adult, for the obvious reason that there isn’t enough room in the child’s stomach to absorb a large amount of food at a time.

But by and large, adults as well as children require the same kinds of nutrients, and need to avoid the same dietary pitfalls, to maintain good health.

Refined Sugars, and the Obesity and Diabetes Epidemics

A high intake of refined sugar will put on the pounds in an adult who doesn’t metabolize the sugar by being physically active. This is one of the primary reasons why two-thirds of adults in the United States are now overweight or obese. High blood sugar and obesity are, in turn, two chief culprits in the onset of diabetes, another health epidemic in the U.S., now affecting more than eight percent of the overall population.

In children, high consumption of refined sugar has been associated with hyperactivity and behavioral problems. In addition, excessive sugar intake is one of the leading reasons for increasing childhood diabetes rates–and for the childhood obesity epidemic that this country now has. According to the CDC, since 1980 the incidence of obesity among U.S. children and adolescents has tripled. One in four children between 2 and 5 is now overweight or obese; one in three school-age children is overweight or obese.

Curbing sugar consumption, then, is a smart choice for adults and children alike.

What about all-natural fruit juices? While many of these do have vitamins, the natural sugar in them is no different from the added-on refined sugar in sodas, for instance (not to mention that the dietary fiber that was present in the fruit has been removed). As such, doctors are now recommending that consumers limit their daily natural juice consumption. Young children should only drink one small glass of fruit juice a day. Children should primarily stick to drinking water and milk, to insure proper hydration.

Important, Necessary Nutrients

We all need lots of calcium to grow and maintain healthy bones, hair and teeth, no matter our age. It’s important for growing children to get plenty of this nutrient–either from dairy products, or when there are food intolerance issues with dairy, from non-dairy calcium-rich foods, such as:

  • Sardines, salmon and other types of fish
  • Soybeans and tofu
  • Collard greens, kale, broccoli, spinach, and parsley
  • Foods enriched with calcium, including orange juice, cereals, and soy milk

We also need plenty of vitamin D, to help our bodies absorb the calcium. Vitamin D serves many other health-promoting functions, as well, like:

  • Regulation of cellular growth and healthy cell activity
  • Protection and lubrication of bones, teeth and hair
  • Reduction of inflammatory responses that can cause cancer, diabetes or obesity
  • Helps prevent many types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other serious illnesses

Exposure to the Sun helps our bodies manufacture vitamin D. Fortified dairy products are also good sources; and for those who don’t eat dairy, fish and eggs are rich in vitamin D.

We all need plenty of protein to help grow muscle and for bone maintenance: lean meats, dairy products, beans, whole grains, and nuts are all good sources.

Instead of sugary kids’ cereals, feed your children whole-grain, low-sugar cereals, or oatmeal seasoned with a little honey and raisins or chopped bananas.

Instead of buying the cheap (or expensive!) filler- and preservative-containing soft breads that kids might prefer, help your family develop the habit of eating the better-quality all-natural, whole-grain breads.

Steer clear from cold-cut lunch meats and hot dogs–these have artificial preservatives, are high in salt and bad fats, and are depleted of nutrients. Canned salmon or canned tuna are much better choices for quick sandwich-making, as are assorted natural cheeses, or hard-boiled eggs for an egg-salad sandwich. Complement with nutrient-rich fiber, such as kale or spinach leaves, and tomato slices.

Fruits and Vegetables

These days, more and more people are beginning to realize the importance of eating plenty of vegetables and fruits as part of a healthy diet. Still, only a fraction of all Americans are believed to get the recommended daily allowances of these.

Vegetables and fruits are packed with important vitamins and unique nutrients, as well as fiber. Fiber is key in avoiding constipation and maintaining bowel regularity. But because fruits and vegetables travel through our bodies relatively quickly, we’d have to keep eating them throughout the day, to continue getting the nutritional benefits. Due to inconvenience or even expense, many Americans, young and old, don’t get enough of them.

An American company by the name of Juice Plus+ Products is now isolating a wide array of naturally occurring vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants from fruits, vegetables, and grains. These are sold in capsules, chewable gels or powder supplements. (You can get more information on this product by logging onto juiceplus.com.) Many doctors are now enthusiastically endorsing these supplements as part of a complete diet. A good-quality daily multivitamin (plus minerals) can be another way to help ensure that you and your children get basic, vital nutritional building blocks.

Artificial Colors, Fillers, and Preservatives

These are not examined nearly as often as nutritional needs and deficiencies, but they are certainly something else that discerning, concerned parents should protect themselves and their children against.

So far, the research that has been done on artificial food additives and chemical preservatives is limited; but what we do know about their long-term and sometimes short-term use is not good.

Foods containing artificial fillers have diminished nutritional value. And artificial preservatives are believed to contribute to the development of different cancers (the nitrates in processed meats like cold cuts and hot dogs, for instance, have been linked to stomach cancer).

As for artificial food colors–these are used in many of the foods marketed to children on television and sold in supermarkets: colored artificial beverages, children’s cereals, candy, baked goods, gelatin desserts, and so on. Many of these colorants have been found to produce tumors in laboratory mice and rats. Red dye #40–the most widely used of all–may accelerate the appearance of immune-system tumors in mice and may trigger hyperactivity in children.

What’s a Parent to Do?

The bottom line is to become a watchful, informed food shopper, by avoiding processed foods as much as possible and reading labels on the foods that you buy. Two well-known American physicians, both of whom independently champion natural diets as a way to avoid disease, tell consumers that if they can’t pronounce an ingredient on a food label, they should not buy the product. This is certainly sound advice. After all, not one of us is ever going to develop a nutritional need for chemicals that don’t belong in our bodies, in the first place.

Artificial colorings make foods more attractive to children (and adults). Artificial fillers (and laboratory-altered ingredients, like hydrogenated oils) give processed foods better consistency and make them cheaper to manufacture. Artificial preservatives lengthen the “shelf life” of foods, and they’re almost always found in TV dinners, pickled vegetables, sodas, and “juice drinks.” They’re also found in nearly all brands of salad dressings, mayonnaise, marinades, soy sauces, barbecue sauces, and pancake syrups.

A wise consumer will consider what all these chemicals will do to his or her body over time, and opt for healthier, natural choices.

The fewer ingredients on a product’s label, the better. It takes only a few ingredients to make bread. So, when you see 10 or 15 ingredients on the labels of most store-bought breads…you know that nearly all those ingredients are unnecessary and don’t belong there. And they certainly don’t belong in your body.

Natural, health-promoting foods cost more than processed ones, it’s true. But if there’s one area where one wouldn’t want to skimp, it’s in the foods we use to fuel our bodies and keep us healthy.