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Does Fruit on the Menu Make Fast Food Healthful?

Monday, December 15th, 2014

This month, McDonald’s USA introduced fresh fruit—Cuties California Clementines—as a side option for their Happy Meal and Mighty Kids Meal options.

The cuties, which provide an excellent source of Vitamin C, will be available during their peak season through March 2015.

According to a press release by the company, adding Cuties to the menu as a kids’ meal option or a la carte purchase “supports McDonald’s ongoing dedication to children’s nutrition and well-being.”

Other nutritious options currently offered as sides for McDonald’s kids’ meals include apple slices and Go-GURT low fat Strawberry Yogurt (though the latter option has six grams of sugar, some of it added; sugar is listed as the second ingredient).

I applaud the effort by the company to include Cuties on the menu. Even though each Cutie counts as only one quarter of cup of fruit, most kids fall short on recommendations for daily fruit intake. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recent national surveys reveal that although two- to five-year-olds met their recommended daily fruit intake goals (0.9 cup-equivalents* per 1,000 calories consumed), 60 percent of children don’t eat enough fruit.

I hope that efforts to provide more nutrient-rich options to kids and all consumers—especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—will continue to appear on fast food and restaurant menus. Such options can certainly provide alternatives to nutrient-poor, highly palatable fare that in excess can contribute to the development of unhealthy weight gain, obesity, and myriad diet-related diseases.

The problem is, even if nutrient-rich foods like Cuties are purchased by parents and their children, that’s no guarantee that they’ll be consumed in place of French fries or milkshakes—some of the very items most go to fast food for in the first place. And if parents and their kids don’t buy such items when offered at fast food outlets, it’s likely the companies will be less willing to offer similar items in the future.

As I’ve written about in a previous Scoop on Food post, I’m not sure fast food will ever truly be health food. Don’t get me wrong—I welcome any effort by McDonald’s or other chains/restaurants to enhance their nutritious offerings. But unless more dramatic changes are made e.g. offering smaller portions, and cutting added fats and sugars in entrees and sides, adding a piece of fruit to the menu isn’t going to have a dramatic impact when it comes to consumers’ health and nutrient intake. That’s because most fast food options including kids’ meals are packed with more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium than kids need.

Fortunately, providing calorie counts on menus and more comprehensive nutrition information upon request (and on company websites) potentially can help kids and parents make more mindful choices when eating out.

However, it’s prudent for all of us to limit the frequency of visits to fast food restaurants. And to make having a fast food meal or snack an occasional treat rather than a regular part of your routine. Studies suggest that children who eat more fast food tend to take in more calories and fewer nutrients than those who consume less or no fast food. Including fast food in the diet can also be a marker for less healthful habits overall. So, if you choose to go to fast food restaurants, I say do it infrequently and eat what you like (even if it’s a burger and fries). Such a strategy is likely better than eating fast food meals often.

If you and your kids find yourself eating fast food for whatever reason—you’re stranded at the airport, you’re on a road trip, you’re in a rush—choosing smaller portions and opting for the more nutrient-rich picks, like a Cutie, or something green and colorful (like a side salad with a small amount of oil-based salad dressing) and eating those first can help you eat better. They may even fill you up enough to leave over a few bites of that burger or a few French fries!

*One cup-equivalent of fruit is approximately one small apple, one cup applesauce or 100% juice.

What are your thoughts about adding fruit/produce to a fast food menu? Will it really make a difference in what kids and their parents choose/eat?

Image of Cuties via Elisa Zied.

 

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Marketing Junk Food to Kids

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

In an effort to stop marketing unhealthy foods to children and curb childhood obesity in America, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently asked five candy companies including Tootsie Roll Industries, American Licorice Company, Haribo of America, Perfetti Van Melle, and The Topps Company to join the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

According to CSPI, letters to the five candy companies were also signed by prominent organizations including the American Heart Association, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, The Yale Rudd Center, Prevention Institute, MomsRising.org as well as other physicians and public health experts.

On the plus side, CSPI reports that three of the nation’s largest candy companies—Hershey, Mars, and Nestle—already belong to the CFBAI, a voluntary self-regulation program founded in 2006 and administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB).

As described on the BBB website, the CFBAI “is designed to shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.” Currently, the three biggest candy companies in the United States—The Hershey Company, Mars, Incorporated, and Nestle USA—currently participate in the initiative. More than a dozen companies including The Coca-Cola Company and Burger King Corporation have also signed on.

According to Maureen Enright, Deputy Director, CFBAI, as part of the initiative, candy and other companies voluntarily agree to use CFBAI’s uniform nutrition criteria to govern what foods are in child-directed advertising (CFBAI covers advertising on TV, radio, print, on the internet, and in mobile ads and apps) or do no child-directed advertising. Currently, CFBAI participants that make candy, including Hershey, Mars, Nestlé and Ferrero, don’t advertise directly to children.

In a press release, CSPI notes that according to both the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and the American Psychological Association, children under age eight aren’t mature enough to understand the persuasive intent of advertising. The press release states that, according to the Institute of Medicine, television food advertising affects children’s food choices, food purchase requests, diets, and overall health.

I fully support this initiative as well as the encouragement of CSPI to have candy companies (and all food companies, for that matter) to do more to protect the health and well being of children. I’m all for anything we can do to better the environment to encourage kids to eat more healthfully and moderately, especially since kids fall short on many foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains and tend to over consume foods made with solid fats and added sugars (collectively, these are called SoFAS according to current dietary guidelines).

According to national survey data, kids’ between the ages of two and eighteen consume an average of 646 calories from SoFAS—or about one third of their total calorie intake. Current guidelines suggest up to five to 15 percent of daily calories from SoFAS. For a child or adolescent who consumes anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 calories daily, that’s about 137 to 161 calories, the amount you’d find in 5 to 6 Hershey kisses.

Besides focusing on advertising of unhealthy foods to kids, I strongly believe that we have to rethink our ubiquitous access to such nutrient-poor foods. Why is it that so many checkout counters at places ranging from gas stations to electronic stores are decorated with shelves of candy wrapped in colorful wrappers? And what about all those coolers, many also at checkout counters, packed with sugary beverages? And vending machines…they’re everywhere, and they’re usually packed with a range of snack foods, many of which fare more like dessert (fortunately, those with 20 or more locations are now required to follow new federal calorie labeling guidelines).

It’s hard to resist the urge to buy impulse items, and what parent hasn’t given in to their kids’ demand for something at a checkout counter or vending machine at least on occasion? It seems to me that besides limiting or altogether obliterating candy and other nutrient-poor food advertisements, especially those that are geared to impressionable children, we also need to have rules about what and how stores sell food.

You might argue that businesses of all kinds have a right to sell what they want and to position such items where they want. But isn’t it wrong on some level to sell candy and other such items at a store that’s not really in the business of selling food? Or to sell food on low shelves, at eye level, where it entices kids? If we are going to make any progress in helping to teach our children to eat well, we need to create an environment—not just at home, but outside the home—that doesn’t sabotage practicing healthy eating and lifestyle habits and teaching them to our kids.

CSPI has been extremely successful in many of their initiatives, and I hope this latest attempt to get candy companies to step up to the plate to limit potentially harmful advertising of less than healthy foods to children catches on. I’m not sure the rules will ever become mandatory, but achieving this would at very least be a big step in helping our kids eat and live more healthfully.

What’s your opinion?

Image of chocolate bar with caramel via shutterstock.

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Will Calorie Counts on Menus Help Kids Eat Better?

Monday, December 1st, 2014

To help kids and their families make more informed choices when eating out, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just finalized two rules for restaurant-type foods (foods usually eaten on the premises, while walking away, or soon after arriving at another location) and foods purchased from vending machines.

According to the new rules, chain restaurants, and similar retail food establishments such as pizza places, salad bars in grocery stores and delis, ice cream shops and movie theaters with 20 or more locations—are now required to post calorie information on menus and menu boards. Operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines also are required to share calorie information with consumers.

In an effort to reduce the incidence of obesity and improve nutritional intake—and offerings—to Americans, menu labeling was originally spearheaded by the consumer advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, in 2003. But it wasn’t until 2008 that menu labeling was mandated for the first time in the U.S. in New York City. Supported by dozens of consumer and professional groups including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, several cities have since adopted similar measures. And in 2010, the national health care reform bill that included a menu labeling provision was passed. Although final menu labeling regulations were expected within a year, they weren’t finalized until recently, at the end of 2014. (Better late than never, I guess!)

Chain restaurants and other retail establishments have one year, and vending machines have two years, to comply with the new federal rules that, incidentally, trump local laws. Although many chain restaurants have already implemented menu labeling laws, following the new rules will be costly for grocery stores and other establishments that before now weren’t required by law to post calorie information.

It’s unclear at this time how menu labeling will impact kids’ overall calorie and nutrient intake. Still, it’s important to pay attention to calories and other nutrients such as fat and sodium derived from foods purchased away from home since they make up a large part of the daily diet. In the press release announcing the new rules, FDA commissioner, Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. says, “Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home.” The question is, will knowing how many calories are in different foods help consumers—including kids—purchase and subsequently consume fewer calories?

Although we need a lot more data before drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of menu labeling (the few studies on its impact on adults and teenagers have thus far yielded mixed results), a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concludes that “menu labeling will likely cause small, but meaningful, reductions in calories purchased at chain restaurants and cafeterias overall, and particularly for patrons who see and use the labels.” It also suggests that the full impact of menu labeling won’t be apparent until chains throughout the country comply with federal menu labeling regulations.

Many experts support the new rules requiring calorie information for fast food and other restaurants and food sold at movie theaters and other venues and in vending machines. Registered and licensed dietitian Joan Salge Blake, a Clinical Associate Professor at Boston University, says, “The new, and long overdue, labeling guidelines will allow families to better understand the amount of calories in their choices at restaurants, and then, balance those decisions among the other family meal options for the week.”

Lisa Young, R.D., PhD., author of The Portion Teller Plan, says, “It’s good that people will now know how many calories are in the foods they eat. They may even see some surprises that may help them make better choices.” David Katz, M.D., Editor in Chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, agrees. He says, “I support the measures because more informed decisions are better than uninformed decisions.” But he also says we have to be very careful not to conflate calories with nutritional quality. “Being cognizant of calories is important and potentially useful to both adults and children, but only if it is in the context of also thinking about the importance of food quality,” Katz says.

Although I would never recommend that parents teach kids to obsess over or focus solely on calories in each and every item that passes their lips, it’s important for parents to model healthier eating by making mindful choices themselves and offering small portions to their children when eating out. Having calorie counts available provides parents and kids with an opportunity to have a conversation about how a favorite fast food meal, slice of pizza, scoop of ice cream or muffin or cookie measures up compared to different foods or portion sizes of those foods. Choosing more healthful (or at least, less caloric) options in appropriate portions for young kids when dining out can be a first step. But as kids age, it’s important to empower them so that when they’re older, they can make their own healthful choices when eating away from home (e.g. at school, or at a friend’s house). Also, showing kids how the foods they eat fit into their total daily calorie and nutrient needs can really be eye opening. Modeling healthier eating habits and showing kids how they can fit in treats (e.g. high calorie, nutrient poor foods like French fries and cookies) as occasional indulgences rather than staple items can also be a valuable lesson.

Although higher calorie foods like nuts can pack in nutrients, many of the items kids grab when they’re on the go are often loaded not only with calories but with added sugar, fat, and sodium—things that should be limited in kids’ diets. Showing kids how the choices they make and the portions they choose when they’re eating out fit into the rest of the day can be a good lesson, especially when kids need to try to make room for many of the nutritious foods they tend to skimp on like fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

According to the new rules, the statement, “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary” will appear on menus and menu boards to show consumers how the calories in different foods fit into their daily needs and in the context of their entire diet. Although some older kids calorie needs may be on par with that of some adults, younger kids typically require less. According to the new rules, the following may also be used on menus and menu boards targeted to children:

“1,200 to 1,400 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice for children ages 4 to 8 years, but calorie needs vary.”

Or

“1,200 to 1,400 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice for children ages 4 to 8 years and 1,400 to 2,000 calories a day for children 9 to 13 years, but calorie needs vary.”

I hope that menu labeling will be an empowering wake-up call to kids and parents alike about what’s really in their food. With obesity and diet-related diseases at high levels, it’s critical that we find solutions to help create a more healthful environment that supports making better food choices. This one federal effort may not be THE solution, but it can certainly be part of the solution, especially if it leads restaurants and any venues that serve food to offer smaller portions and/or more nutrient-rich foods. Hopefully, future studies will show that menu labeling can make a dent in our collective calorie intake to help all of us maintain healthy body weights and avert diet-related health problems down the road.

To learn more about the new calorie labeling rules, check out the FDA website.

Also, check my previous Scoop on Food blogs: How Kids Can Eat Better When They Eat Out and New Nutrition Guidance for 2 to 11-Year-Olds.

Do you think providing calorie counts will help kids eat better?

How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids

Image of pizza nutrition facts via shutterstock.

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Cook Up Family Fun With The 52 New Foods Challenge

Monday, November 24th, 2014

As we inch closer to Thanksgiving and a new year, it’s likely you’re at least thinking about how to help your family, especially your children, eat better—and more nutritiously—after what will likely become an indulgent holiday season. To help you get your family into the kitchen to cook and prepare more healthful meals, the new book, The 52 New Foods Challenge: A Family Cooking Adventure for Each Week of the Year is here to help. Written by Jennifer Tyler Lee, creator of the award-winning nutrition game Crunch a Color and contributor at the Huffington Post, the book offers plenty of practical solutions to make meals fun, boost variety (and bust boredom) at the family table and to help families cook together (rather than having parents cook for their kids).

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Tyler Lee via email. Here are some highlights:

Why did you feel compelled to write The 52 New Foods Challenge?

JTL: This story begins at my family table. My daughter’s diet was dominated by white foods. How was I going to get her to eat anything other than pasta? Parents across the country struggle with this same issue, and it can be immensely frustrating. But this is part of a much bigger problem. We are in the middle of a massive health epidemic, and at the heart of it is nutrition. Home cooking is at an all time low, and processed food intake is at an all time high. Diabetes and obesity are rampant. Most troubling is how this trend is affecting our kids—one in three children are overweight or obese. This is of great concern because researchers have seen the diets of children being related to risks of cancer and other conditions later in life. We need to get kids to eat real food to set them up for a lifetime of healthy habits. But parents are overwhelmed. What they need is a simple plan to transform the way their families eat. The 52 New Foods Challenge is my solution to that problem.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

JTL: Math is fun when it’s a puzzle. Reading is fun when it’s about decoding the words. Food is no different. I created a simple game with an easy to remember structure: try one new food each week. It’s manageable, which gets families to take the first step. The book is designed to change your family’s behavior the slow and sustainable way. It’s all about taking small steps to make big changes.

The idea of 52 new foods may sound like a lot to parents. Can those who find that number overwhelming encourage their kids to try fewer new foods and still provide them and their families with some nutritional and other benefits?

JTL: I suggest that parents start by trying one new food, and cooking it together. Don’t worry about how you’re going to get through all 52 weeks. Start with one. Let the seasons be your guide. Remember that “new” can mean a familiar food prepared in a new way, like something as simple as Baked Apple Chips.

What are your two top tips to help families get started on the challenge?

JTL: First, let your kids lead. Put your kids in charge of your new food adventure. Head to the market together and let them pick a new food that they would like to try. Together, choose an easy recipe that you can cook together. Then let them serve it. Second, focus on the fun of the adventure, rather than forcing tasters, and you’ll find that it’s easier to keep going. It’s about the journey the foods take you on.

How do you encourage your kids to eat their colors?

JTL: In the book I say, “Colors in your diet are like instruments in a symphony—the more you have, the richer the experience.” There are a couple of easy ways to boost color at your table. At the market, challenge your kids to fill the cart with color. Aim for five. Bonus points if one of your colors is a new food. It’s also helpful to set up a snack drawer for your kids, organized by color, to make it easy for them to grab healthy food even when it’s hectic (this works equally well for adults). Plan your meals to feature three colors. To make it easy, offer one cooked veggie, like Ridiculous Radicchio Chips, and one raw veggie, like rainbow carrots. Dessert can be colorful too—try seasonal fruit on weeknights, simple treats made at home on the weekend.

JTL: Can you share a recipe to please parents and young children alike? 

Brussels Sprouts Chips* (see recipe below) are the current favorite at our family table. The crispy, crunchy chips are delicious and the recipe is super easy to make. They will definitely be making an appearance on our holiday table.

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed (look for small, tight heads with no yellow or brown leaves)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Using your fingers, peel away the leaves from the sprouts.

3. Place the leaves on a rimmed baking sheet. Add the oil and salt and toss to combine.

4. Bake for 10 minutes, then toss the leaves in the pan. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees Fahrenheit and bake the sprouts for 15 minutes more or until leaves are crispy and almost burnt. Let your kids watch closely to figure out the best timing for your oven.

Tip: The easiest way to peel the leaves is to cut off the ends, turn the sprouts over and gently pry the leaves away starting at the stem. Keep trimming off the ends as you go to make it easier to peel off the layers. This takes patience (and time), but it’s a fun activity for your kids. As you get closer to the center, the leaves will become too tight to peel, so simply save the small pieces to saute or roast.

*Source: The 52 New Foods Challenge.

How do you encourage your family to try new foods?

Image of Brussels Sprouts Chips via Chris Chowaniec.

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6 Ways Kids Can Deal With Tempting Foods

Monday, November 17th, 2014

If the upcoming holiday season gives you angst when it comes to food and all the temptations, this guest post by Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D. provides some great tips to help you and your kids eat better and still enjoy yourselves. Read on to see what Ward, my esteemed colleague and the author of My Plate for Moms: How to Feed Yourself and Your Family Better, has to say about how to navigate this time of year—and all year—without sabotaging your family’s healthy diet.

Healthy babies are born with the knack to regulate their appetite; they eat when they’re hungry and they stop when they’re full. But early in life, most of us learn how to override that inborn ability. We discover that brownies tastes better than broccoli, salty crackers trump fruit, and soda is more fun than plain milk, and we want more junk food whether we are hungry or not.

Sure, some kids (not my three!) naturally clamor for carrot sticks and hummus, and could care less about overdoing it on cookies, snack chips, and sugary drinks, but they are the exceptions. Truth is, many children, especially younger ones, lack self-restraint—putting the brakes on when they’ve had enough or avoiding a certain food altogether—in favor of instant gratification.

It’s really no wonder why self-restraint, a.k.a., willpower, is so difficult to practice. Restraint is pushed to the limits in a world where children and their parents are bombarded all day long with messages and opportunities to eat sugary and fatty foods, and lots of them.

As parents, we want to teach our children self-restraint (many of us parents would like to have more of it ourselves, at least sometimes). The trick is to help kids pay attention to their hunger without policing every bite they take and to avoid food fights. Excessive monitoring of a youngster’s food intake stifles his or her independence, and may lead to overeating when you’re not around.

How to Build Willpower

Self-control is a lot like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets, according to researcher Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The authors of a recent study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine suggest that healthy lifestyle choices may help better preserve the part of the brain that governs self-restraint. The authors also theorize that certain environments help reduce the temptation to overeat.

Here are six tips to help you help kids limit their intake of junk food without becoming the food police:

• Plan to succeed.  It’s much easier to make poor food decisions when you’re famished.  Plan meals and snacks with adequate protein, such as dairy, lean meat, beans and eggs, and fiber-filled foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to help you and your kids feel fuller for longer. Don’t keep tempting foods like candy, cookies, and chips in the house (Note from Elisa Zied: If you do keep a few empty calorie, nutrient-poor treats in the house, store them on a high shelf behind closed doors to minimize mindless eating.)

• Sleep your way to self-restraint. Researchers suggest that when you’re well rested, it’s easier to walk away from that pint of premium ice cream that’s calling your name. It’s the same for children: self-restraint is more likely with a consistent pattern of adequate slumber. Show your children that you value sleep as part of healthy living.

• Model restraint. Actions speak louder than words. Limiting yourself to two cookies instead of gorging on six helps teach your children to better control themselves. In addition, by committing to modeling good eating habits for the sake of the kids by not overindulging, you strengthen your own willpower “muscle.”

• Create positive peer pressure. Other children and adults may play a role in what your child eats. For the most part, surround yourself with people who will make it easier for your child to consume reasonable portions of high-calorie foods on limited occasions. Take the lead by serving healthy foods and limiting treats when your children have play dates.

Recognize the limits of self-control. Willpower is a limited resource. All day long you and your child do things that sap your inner energy reserves, like get up early for work when you’d rather sleep in, or, in your child’s case, sit quietly at his desk when he’d like to be running around the playground. It’s much more difficult to control the urge to splurge when you’re feeling stressed, which makes it that much more important to organize your household and eating routine to reduce temptation.

• Trust your inner child.  Your internal hunger cues may have dulled with time, but there’s plenty of hope for your son or daughter’s (and yours!). Start today to trust your child’s instinct by not overfeeding them. Don’t use any food, particularly sugary or fatty treats, as rewards. The earlier in life you start to do this, the easier it will be to teach self-restraint in the long run.

To help kids eat less and better, check out a recent Scoop on food post here.

How do you help your kids eat less and better?

How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids

Image of willpower via shutterstock.

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