- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

Cookies are unhealthy, and yogurt is nutritious. Right? Not necessarily, says Susan Garson, author of “Pattern Setting for Childhood Health: The Parent’s Guide for Nutrition and Activity.”

“Something might look healthy, but you look at the label, and it’s full of additives and preservatives,” Mrs. Garson says.

To make healthy snack and meal choices for their families, parents need to scrutinize ingredient labels. She recommends looking at the first three or four ingredients — they are the main ones — to see if the item is something they really want to put in their bodies.

“Forget about the front of the packaging. It can say a lot of things that are often misleading. ‘Healthy,’ for example, doesn’t have to mean that the item is healthy, she says. “Producers use a lot of catchy phrases and catchy words on the front of the package — but the label has to be accurate.”

Anna Lutz, a pediatric dietitian at Children’s National Medical Center in Northwest, recommends that parents look not only at the number of calories in a food, but also at other nutritional information.

“You want snacks and meals to be nutritionally balanced,” Mrs. Lutz says. “You want to have foods from all the basic food groups.”

This way, she says, families can make sure snacks and meals include an adequate amount of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in addition to calories.

Her choices for healthy snack foods include whole-wheat crackers with cheese, apple slices with peanut butter, raw vegetables with cottage cheese, or yogurt with fruit.

While acknowledging the increasing number of children and adolescents who are overweight — 15 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Mrs. Garson agrees that counting calories is not enough to achieve a healthy diet.

“If you look at 100 percent juice and juice cocktail, for example, the 100 percent juice will actually have more calories,” Mrs. Garson says. “But you should choose the 100 percent juice anyway because it has essential vitamins and minerals, and the sugar it contains is fructose, not white sugar.”

Parents, however, still should dilute the 100 percent juice to limit their children’s sugar and calorie intake, she says.

“If you keep handing them juice all day without diluting it, they’ll get a lot more sugar than they need,” she says.

Another place where families should not get caught up on calories is the cereal aisle, she says.

“Cocoa Puffs can have a lot fewer calories than a much-healthier type of cereal. But you’re not getting the fiber [with the Cocoa Puffs] and you’re getting a lot more sugar,” she says.

To put it in perspective, she says, if calories were everything, a candy bar with 300 calories would be a lot healthier than a balanced meal of brown rice, vegetables and chicken, which can contain three times the calories.

“A big part of this is parents educating themselves and making the right choices for themselves. Reading labels is something everyone should know,” she says.

“And if you want to be convincing to your children, don’t drink a soda with your meal. Your child is going to ask, ‘Why do I have to drink milk when you’re having a soda?’”

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