- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

Children get messages about what to eat from television and magazine ads, grocery store shelf placement, and school vending machines. The problem, public health officials say, is that the featured foods are seldom nutritious.

“Unfortunately, the food industry spends millions and millions of dollars, and public health officials just don’t have that kind of money to spend,” says Anna Lutz, a pediatric dietitian at Children’s National Medical Center in Northwest. “So, it’s the parents who can make the biggest difference.”

But how can parents make the case for apples and carrots if all children ever see and hear about are potato chips and cookies?

Dr. Mary Gavin, a pediatrician and author of “Fit Kids: A Practical Guide to Raising Healthy and Active Children — From Birth to Teens,” says the approach has to be twofold. Parents have to teach their children (and possibly themselves) about nutritious food and also educate their children about how advertising works.

“What we can do is step back and be parents — we can teach our children about healthy food choices and about advertising — we can help them become a critical consumer,” Dr. Gavin says.

Part of being a critical consumer is analyzing the message of a commercial and figuring out if it is true or false, she says.

“You can even do it with very young children. It’s even more powerful if you can relate the product to a personal experience,” she says.

If the Barbie in the television ad, for example, talks and walks and the Barbie at home doesn’t, it’s proof enough, even to a preschooler, that ads can be deceiving, she says.

Another health concern with television-watching is that it’s a sedentary pastime, says Susan Garson, author of “Pattern Setting for Childhood Health: The Parent’s Guide for Nutrition and Activity.”

“And while the kids sit there, they’ll want to snack on something, maybe potato chips or cookies. Not a good combination,” she says.

She recommends that parents discuss — in an age-appropriate manner — which foods are nutritious and which are not, and why.

That’s what Crofton, Md., residents John and Valerie English do with their daughters Megan, 10, and Colleen, 7.

“We always check labels, and we talk to them about what makes something healthy,” Mr. English says. “We encourage them to try new things all the time. Sometimes we’re successful.”

Start young

Although she watches television, including ads for fast food and other convenience food, on most days, Megan English says her parents are the biggest influence on what she eats — and always have been.

“If my parents say something tastes good, I’ll probably try it,” she says.

That doesn’t mean she’ll like it.

“Like gratin potatoes. I call them rotten potatoes,” she says.

Mr. English says his daughters aren’t great about eating vegetables, but he doesn’t force the issue.

“I’m not a big vegetable person myself. I remember as a child I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I’d finished my vegetables. So, I’d put them in my pockets and flush them down the toilet,” he says.

The reluctance to eat vegetables is pretty common among children, Mrs. Garson says.

“I’m not sure why, but kids learn at a very young age that vegetables are taboo. Maybe it’s because we assume they won’t like them,” she says.

She recommends that parents not say “vegetables” but rather specify what they’re serving — for example, “green beans,” and talk about colors and textures, anything that can make it more fun to eat.

“The way cherry tomatoes squirt when you bite into them cracks my boys up,” says Mrs. Garson, who has a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old.

Mrs. Lutz says it’s never too early to start encouraging healthy eating habits. She, like Mr. English, says it’s important not to call healthy and unhealthy foods “good” and “bad” foods.

“If something is forbidden or bad, it’s more appealing,” Mrs. Lutz says. “And if you’re told you have to finish your vegetables to get dessert, [dessert] must be really good.”

It’s better to discuss food in terms of what makes children feel good and what doesn’t.

“You’re telling them the facts of how it affects them and they can make healthy choices,” she says.

The way a parent describes the benefit or downside of a specific food item should be age-appropriate, Dr. Gavin says.

“If you’re talking to a young child about the importance of fiber, you could say, ‘Without grains you’re going have a tummy ache,’” she says. “If you’re talking to a teenage girl about the importance of iron, you could say, ‘If you don’t get your iron, you’re not going to be as alert.’”

Cultivating the palate

A common excuse for families to forgo healthy food in favor of fast food is time, Mrs. Lutz says.

“It may take a little more time over the weekend to plan meals for the week, but it’s worth it,” she says.

She says having planned family meals at home is one of the best ways to encourage good eating habits in children.

“If you’re having meals and snacks at the table, then there’s an opportunity for parents to model healthy eating,” she says.

Dr. Gavin says that though there is no way to make a child pick a strawberry over a cookie, there are ways to encourage healthy choices through exposure.

“What you as a parent bring into the house is what the child will consider normal,” Dr. Gavin says. “If you bring in cookies for dessert, that’s what they’ll come to expect. But if you have strawberries for dessert, then that becomes a treat. … It becomes part of their palate.”

Providing healthy choices is at the top of her mind when Elizabeth Pelcyger, mother of 2-year-old twins, goes grocery shopping, usually without her children.

“It’s up to the kids to decide what they eat, so I figure if I basically give them healthy foods, they may not be eating a ‘balanced’ meal, but at least their options are basically healthy,” says Ms. Pelcyger, who lives on Capitol Hill.

The healthy food choices include turkey sausage, homemade macaroni and cheese, chicken, grapes, cheese, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, watermelon, apples, and whole-wheat and sourdough breads.

The twins — who rarely watch TV and when they do their parents mute the sound when ads are aired — are allowed one cookie each after dinner.

“Theo frequently doesn’t even finish his cookie,” she says of one of the twins.

Ms. Pelcyger’s children are still young, as are the English girls. Their ability to buy their own food is limited. But what happens when they reach adolescence?

That’s when children rebel against many of the things their parents advocate, including food, Mrs. Garson says.

“They’re going to deviate, and that’s something you should expect,” she says.

However, if parents notice that the rebelling and experimenting is cutting out too many foods, they should contact a nutritionist or pediatrician, she says. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia often develop during teenage years.

Dr. Gavin agrees and says sometimes teens hide eating disorders behind vegetarianism.

“Talk to them about what constitutes a healthy vegetarian diet. If you meet resistance … it could be a red flag,” she says.

But if teens who had good eating habits at home while growing up simply are enjoying their freedom and part of that includes pizza and hamburgers, it probably is no cause for despair, Mrs. Garson says.

“After they’ve enjoyed some freedom, and possibly gained some extra pounds in college, they’re going to crave the food their parents used to make,” she says.

More info:

Books —

• “Fit Kids: A Practical Guide to Raising Active and Healthy Children — From Birth to Teens,” by Mary L. Gavin, Steven A. Dowshen and Neil Izenberg, DK Publishing, 2004. This book addresses the challenges of sedentary lifestyles for children and their parents while also giving ideas on how to improve eating habits and increase the amount of daily exercise for the entire family. It also discusses the impact ads for junk food have on children.

• “Pattern Setting for Childhood Health: The Parent’s Guide for Nutrition and Activity,” by Susan Garson, Garson Publications, 2003. This book discusses the importance of establishing healthy habits early in life. It includes chapters on healthy snack and food labels. It also features a chapter on the effects of excessive television watching on children.

• “Be Healthy! It’s a Girl Thing: Food Fitness and Feeling Great,” by Mavis Jukes and Lilian Wai-Yin Cheung, Crown Books for Young Readers, 2003. A guide for adolescent girls on how to stay healthy and fit, with information on nutrition and exercise. It aims to tell adolescent girls what they need to know to achieve an active lifestyle and how to avoid the pitfalls of body-image issues.

• “Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know,” by Shari Graydon, Annick Press Ltd., 2003. According to this book, the average American child sees about 40,000 television ads every year. This book, which targets children ages 9 through 12, aims to help children decode the advertising messages.

Associations —

• The American Dietetic Association, 1120 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 480, Washington, DC 20036. Phone: 202/775-8277. Web site: www.eatright.org. This nonprofit organization offers information and tips on healthy eating for families. Its Web site features several articles on the topic, including how to encourage young children to adopt healthy habits.

• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Road, Atlanta, GA 30333. Phone: 404/639-3311. Web site: www.cdc.gov. The CDC provides information on dietary guidelines, obesity, body mass index and tips on physical activity. The site also features an area on the CDC’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Program: www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa.

Online —

• Kidnetic.com (www.kidnetic.com) is part of the International Food Information Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to offer science-based information on food safety, health and nutrition. The Kidnetic Web site offers healthy snack and meal recipes and games that aim to improve children’s knowledge about what the body needs to be healthy. In one game, Inner G, visitors click on a certain body part and a pop-up window tells what to do to keep that body part healthy. Water is important for the kidneys, for example, as is water-saturated food, such as watermelon, cucumbers and oranges.

• Nutrition.gov (www.nutrition.gov) is a U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site that provides information on nutrition, healthy eating, physical activity and food safety.


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