Author Archive

Should We Rethink Kids’ Cereal Intake?

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Despite its popularity as a staple for many children and parents alike, cereal has gotten a bad rap lately—primarily because of the high levels of added sugar it contains. But as cereal sales continue to fall, companies seem to be doing what they can to generate interest in having consumers eat it not just for breakfast but at other times of the day (see this recent Wall Street Journal clip). Also, Kellogg’s recently announced a partnership with YoCrunch to sell in a yogurt aisle near you YoCrunch Cereal Bowls (a combination of Greek yogurt and popular cereals like Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops and Special K). Whether such efforts will help overturn the recent slump in cereal sales has yet to be seen, though a new highly publicized report about cereal by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) may very well cause them to fall even more.

In the new report, How Much Is Too Much? Excess Vitamins and Minerals Can Harm Kids’ Health, the EWG concludes that many American children get too much of three nutrients—vitamin A, niacin and zinc—and that cereal is a key contributor to this excess intake. The report claims that “Fortified breakfast cereals are the number one source of excessive intake of vitamin A, niacin and zinc because they’re all added to fortified foods in amounts calculated for adults, not children.” It also points out that Daily Values for vitamin A, niacin and zinc are higher than the “Tolerable Upper Intake Level” (UL) calculated by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) for children 8-years-old and younger. (The UL is “the highest level of daily nutrient intake that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population.”) When routinely ingested in high doses, these vital nutrients can become toxic.

Before drawing conclusions, the EWG analyzed the Nutrition Facts panels of 1,556 cereals. Of those, 114 contained 30 percent or more of the adult Daily Value (DV) of either vitamin A, zinc or niacin in a single serving. According to the EWG, “A child age 8 or younger eating a single serving of any of them would exceed IOM’s safe level.” The EWG also identified 23 cereals—these include some popular picks like General Mills total Raisin Bran, Kellogg’s Product 19—that had the highest added doses of the three nutrients. The report warns that “Children who eat cereals that are high in one or more of these three nutrients along with other fortified foods and/or supplements could easily be overexposed.”

When consumed in excess, Vitamin A—important for healthy teeth, bones, eyes and skin and immune function—can damage the liver and contribute to symptoms like brittle bones, hair loss and peeling skin. Getting too much zinc—a mineral that supports immune function and plays a key role in many important chemical reactions in the body—can, in fact, impair immunity, cause anemia, and reduce the absorption of copper. Overdoing intake of the niacin—a B vitamin that helps convert food to energy—can cause rashes or other skin reactions, nausea and liver problems.

If you, like many parents (including me), routinely give your kids cereal, the EWG report might make you throw your hands up in despair—and throw all your cereal boxes in the garbage! While this report does raise a red flag and illustrate the idea that too much of a good thing may not, after all, be good, I really don’t think you need to go to extremes to keep your kids healthy. That being said, it’s prudent to add excess intakes of vitamins and minerals from cereal and other fortified foods to your list of concerns when feeding children simply because of potential health perils associated with eating such foods, especially in excess.

The EWG wisely recommends looking for cereals that offer no more than 20 to 25% of the adult Daily Value for vitamin A, zinc and niacin. Encouraging children to stick to small serving sizes of cereal, to choose cereal that is 100% whole grain, high in fiber, and lower in sugar, and topping it with fresh fruit, chopped nuts or seeds (for older children) and low- or nonfat milk can help kids meet—but not exceed—food group and nutrient needs. (To find other tips to help you choose more nutritious cereals, check out my recent Scoop on Food Post, Cereal for Breakfast: A Good or Bad Idea?, here.)

Although it’s great to be mindful of what kinds of cereal and how much and how often your kids consume this traditional breakfast staple, it’s important to also think big picture to help them eat healthfully. Although no one food can make or break a diet, when it comes to nutrients, the EWG report underscores the importance of looking at cereal as part of your child’s overall intake of food, fortified foods, and dietary supplements. If you really want some credible guidance on making food and/or supplement choices for your children to meet (but not exceed) their overall nutrient needs, consulting with a registered dietitian nutritionist and your child’s pediatrician can certainly be a great first step.

Does this EWG report make you want to ban cereal together? Will you think twice when buying cereal or feeding it to your children?

Image of healthy breakfast via shutterstock.

Add a Comment

Should Kids Lower Their Sodium Intake?

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

In an effort to “try to prevent thousands of deaths each year from heart disease and stroke,” the Associated Press (AP) reports that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon issue voluntary guidelines to encourage food companies and restaurants to lower sodium in their offerings.

Although current Dietary Guidelines for Americans set a daily cap of less than 2,300 milligrams for Americans over age two (and even less—1,500 milligrams—for adults aged 51 and over, African-Americans and those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease), most children exceed these recommendations. National survey data reveals that while two to five year-olds meet the cap and average 2,307 milligrams of sodium daily (that’s about one teaspoon of salt), older children fare worse. Six- to 11-year-olds consume about 2969 milligrams of sodium daily, and 12- to 19-year-olds average a whopping 3,585 milligrams of sodium daily.

Typically, consuming more dietary sodium is linked with higher blood pressure. And for children, there’s moderate evidence that as sodium intake decreases, so does blood pressure. Helping children keep blood pressure in a normal range may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease.

Despite evidence to the contrary, not everyone agrees sodium intake should be limited to garner blood pressure or other health benefits. In fact, a recent review published in the American Journal of Hypertension found that while both low sodium intakes and high sodium intakes were associated with increased mortality, average daily intakes of between 2,645–4,945 milligrams was associated with the most favorable health outcomes. According to the AP article, the food industry supports a 2013 Institute of Medicine report that suggests there’s no good evidence that eating sodium at levels below 2,300 milligrams daily offers benefits.

Whatever your thoughts about sodium, it’s important to know where it lurks so that you can be mindful when feeding even young children. A recent study published in Pediatric Obesity that examined the sodium and sugar content of packaged baby and toddler foods sold in America found that 58 percent of the products assessed either have a high level of sodium or at least 20 percent of calories from sugar. Researchers also found that 15 percent of toddler foods (especially entrees) exceeded the ‘moderate level’ recommended for sodium.

Other foods that kids typically eat that tend to be high in sodium—not to mention high in calories and less nutritious overall—include processed/packaged or restaurant foods including fried, breaded foods (like chicken nuggets and French fries), cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, sliced deli meats, condiments like catsup and processed meats like hot dogs. Still, otherwise nutritious foods like canned beans, vegetable-based soups, and whole grain breads can also pack in sodium which is why it helps to read labels to compare products. To put sodium in context, any item that contains 230 milligrams per serving is about 10 percent of the sodium recommended daily for kids.

Only time will tell if the FDA’s future voluntary sodium guidelines—if followed by the food industry—will help children lower their sodium intake and reap subsequent health benefits. Until then, it’s prudent to be aware of sodium in kids’ diets and to take steps to help them meet—and not exceed—current science-based sodium guidelines.

For more on sodium and tips to help your kids lower their intake, check out my recent Scoop on Food post, Kids and Sodium. You can also visit this CDC website.

What’s your take on kids and sodium? Do you think they should limit it in their diets?

Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids
Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids
Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids

Image of spilled salt and salt shaker via shutterstock.


Add a Comment

Is It OK For Kids to OD on Saturated Fat?

Monday, June 16th, 2014

If the new book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time has made you change your child’s plate and offer her fatty foods without abandon, I urge to you to think again. Although I recommend an all-foods-can-fit approach to eating and feeding my children—an approach that some registered dietitian nutrition colleagues support and others loathe—it makes little sense to disregard current science-based advice to limit saturated fatty acids.

A strong body of evidence suggests that higher intake of saturated fatty acids is linked with higher levels of both total and bad (LDL) cholesterol—risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Also, replacing some saturated fatty acids in the diet with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (unsaturated fats) is also linked with low blood cholesterol levels and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Because of these links, current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 10 percent of total calories as saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids; keeping trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible; and reducing intake of solid fats (like butter and lard).

According to the American Heart Association, lowering saturated fatty acid intake even more—to less than 7 percent of total daily calories—can confer even more benefits when it comes to heart health.

Even though foods that naturally contain saturated fatty acids like meat and dairy foods (milk, cheese and yogurt) contribute key nutrients, it’s wise to teach children to choose such foods and others high in saturated fatty acids (including grain-based desserts like cookies and cupcakes, and dairy-based desserts like ice cream) in lower fat forms while eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This can help minimize saturated fatty acid intake while maximizing overall nutrient intake. More importantly, it can also help children keep their total calorie intake at a level that meets (but doesn’t exceed) their needs. Because many foods that are rich in saturated fatty acids also tend to be high in calories (not to mention taste so good), they’re also relatively easy to over consume.

Excess intake of saturated fatty acids (and fat in general) that leads to an over consumption of total calories also can contribute to excess body fat levels. Because each gram of fat has more than double the calories found in a gram of either carbohydrate or protein, calories from foods high in fat content can add up really fast and cause children to take in more calories than they need. Also, even though excess calories from any nutrient—protein, fat or carbohydrate—can increase body fat levels, excess fat calories are more efficiently stored as body fat than excess carbohydrate or protein calories. So while it’s important to make sure children get enough calories from nutrient-rich foods to meet their needs, it’s also important to help them avoid excess calories from fat (especially saturated and trans fatty acids) to prevent unhealthy weight gain and obesity.

Although many variables including genes, excess total calorie intake, decreased physical activity, increased sedentary behavior and not enough sleep contribute to the development of obesity in children, helping children establish moderate and mindful eating habits can reduce the risk. Becoming obese not only burdens children both physically and emotionally, but it also puts them at increased risk for diet related diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It also can increase the risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Highlighted recently in the New York Times, the prevalence of suspected NAFLD in adolescents has more than doubled over the last three decades and currently affects an estimated 1 in 10 children. Over time, NAFDL can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, liver cancer and cardiovascular disease. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that increased intake of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3 fatty acids) and reduced intake of added sugars (especially from soft drinks) may reduce the risk of or treat NAFLD.

When it comes to dietary fats, helping children choose leaner cuts of meat (like sirloin or flank steak and skinless poultry), low- or non-fat dairy products, eating more fish (especially those rich in omega-3 fatty acids), nuts and seeds, and limiting fried foods and other foods made with solid fats can help them better balance their fat intake (not to mention eat better). Still, focusing on manipulating a single nutrient in the diet—whether that nutrient is fat (or a particular fat, like saturated fat), sugar or something else—misses the boat, especially because most foods contain a mix of nutrients. And ODing on any single nutrient or food is never a good idea, especially because it then leaves less room for other nutrients and foods in the diet. So the next time you hear a story or read a headline that tells you it’s OK to eat more of this or that even though you’ve heard you shouldn’t, or to eliminate this or that (even though a little probably won’t kill you), be aware that these statements are likely too good to be true or. At best, they’re an oversimplification of the science of food and nutrition. I say it’s safer to let prudence rather than headlines be your guide when making food choices for yourself and your family.

The bottom line when it comes to dietary fat and children is to offer them a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods, to teach them how to balance their food choices and to learn what proper portions of all kinds of foods to meet individual needs for growth and development. And until we know more, I prefer a total diet rather than a single nutrient approach to eating and feeding, and recommend using current science-based Dietary Guidelines for Americans to guide your food choices. Although few children and adults fully follow the guidelines (they are admittedly idealistic and challenging to follow), simply moving in the direction of meeting the recommendations can help children eat better while reducing the risk of obesity and diet-related diseases. Staying active, getting adequate sleep and managing stress can also help.

(For more on my thoughts about dietary fat and kids, check out this recent Scoop on Food post.)

Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better

Image of fresh meat and dairy products via shutterstock.

Add a Comment

New Rules for Fish Intake

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

If your kids, like most, fall short on fish intake, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) want to change that. In an effort to update joint fish* consumption recommendations issued in 2004, the FDA and EPA just released draft updated advice for pregnant women, women who might become pregnant, women who breastfeed and young children.

Fish provides a vital source of nutrients needed by pregnant and breastfeeding women and children. Besides being a source of high quality protein, many types of fish—especially cold-water, oily fish, like salmon—are key food sources of two potent omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (they’re essential because the body can’t make them and they need to be derived from the diet) are integral components of cell membranes and support critical functions in the brain, blood vessels and immune system. EPA creates compounds that help cells divide and grow and also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle activity and digestion, and DHA is critical for brain function. Although our bodies can make a little bit of EPA and DHA from plant foods, fish is a more reliable source of these vital nutrients. Studies also suggest that fish benefits heart health, may protect against depression and may even benefit skin health.

Depending on the type you choose, fish can also be a good or excellent source of nutrients including vitamin B12, niacin, selenium and phosphorus. Some are also excellent sources of vitamin D.

Although the draft recommendations encourage adults to consume 8 to 12 ounces weekly of a variety of fish that are lower in mercury (more on that below), it recommends that children consume amounts consistent with current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Based on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Patterns, children ages 2 to 8 years who consume between 1,000 and 1,400 calories should aim for about 3 to 6 ounces of fish weekly. Older children who consume 1,600 or more calories (eg boys aged 10 and older, and girls aged 11 and older) can aim for at least 8 ounces of fish weekly. The draft recommendations also recommend feeding fish to children only after 6 months of age and to monitor for signs of an allergic reaction before feeding a second time since fish—especially shellfish—is recognized as a major allergen.

When it comes to fish options, the draft recommendations encourage low mercury fish options. While mercury, a heavy metal, occurs naturally in the environment, it also collects in the waters in which fish swim. There it becomes methylmercury, a neurotoxin. When fish feed, they absorb varying amounts of methylmercury, and nearly all fish contains at least traces of the heavy metal. Being exposed to too much methylmercury can harm the brain and nervous system, which is why it’s vital for women of childbearing age and children especially to make more mindful fish choices. The draft recommendations suggest avoiding higher mercury fish including tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. They also recommend emphazsizing lower mercury fish options including salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (light canned), tilapia, catfish, and cod and limiting intake of white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week since it contains an estimated three times the mercury found in light tuna.

If you’re still concerned about methylmercury or other harmful pollutants in fish, you can remove parts of the fish in which such substances tend to accumulate before cooking; these include the skin, belly fat, and internal organs.

To incorporate more fish in kids’ diets, you can serve it in small portions alongside or mixed with rice and vegetables, in fajitas or quesadillas, or bake it with breadcrumbs made from flaky whole grain cereal. Or make mini fish sticks! And if your kids won’t eat fish because they don’t like it, or because they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, be sure to consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist to make sure they are meeting their basic nutrient needs.

Although it’s unclear when final FDA/EPA fish intake recommendations will be made, it’s prudent to follow the updated draft guidance—especially if your kids don’t eat much or any fish. And if you want to voice your opinion or make a comment about the draft advice, you can do so starting on June 11, 2014.

*includes fish and shellfish.

Image of grilled fish with BBQ vegetables via shutterstock.

Do you and your kids eat fish? If not, what’s stopping you? And if you do, what’s your favorite way to eat/prepare it?

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

Add a Comment

What is “Real Food?” Dietitians Weigh In

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

For the past few years, you’ve likely heard how vital it is to feed our children and ourselves more so-called “real food.” Adding to—if not starting—the conversation, popular food writer Michael Pollan weighs in on all things food in his bestselling book, Food Rules. In it, he defines “real food” as “plants, animals and fungi people have been eating for generations.” Pollan also refers to most new products offered in supermarkets each year as “edible food-like substances” and describes such foods as “highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and that contain chemical additives with which the body has not been long acquainted.”

Although many parents and experts alike may agree with Pollan’s point of view, there’s no formal, universally accepted definition for “real food.” Even if there were, it’s likely parents who want to feed themselves and their growing children better would go about doing so in different ways. Still, I thought it would be fun to take to Facebook and Twitter and ask my registered dietitian colleagues what they think “real food” really is.

According to Marty Yadrick, “real food” is anything edible. Sheryl Lozicki thinks of “real food” as food that is minimally processed and nourishing. Alexandra Lautenschläger concurs, adding that “real foods” have few ingredients.

Janet Bond Brill, PhD thinks of “real food” as food that is eaten the way Mother Nature intended it to be eaten—for example, an apple rather than apple pie. And Maggie Green says, “If “real food” means it’s tangible, then all food is real. If “real food” means it’s not processed, that excludes foods like olive oil and butter.” According to Lauren Slayton, “For many parents, “real food” is food they serve their children—it doesn’t come from a package or from a factory.”

Regan Jones concedes that that term “real food” means different things to different people (something that came across loud and clear when I posted the question on Facebook and on twitter in the first place). According to Jones, “In it’s truest sense, “real food” represents foods that we recognize in their most basic, natural form—how they grew from the ground, what animal produced the milk, or even the tree on which the fruit grew. But busy, modern day lives mean we don’t/can’t eat at that most basic root level—so for my purposes, “real foods” are foods that have been processed in a way to allow for convenience (like peeling or grinding) and safety (like pasteurization).” The co-creator of, an image-based recipe discovery platform—and the only site of its kind moderated by registered dietitians and solely focused on healthy food blogs—Jones says, “While we (at don’t shun all advances by food manufacturers, we do like to focus on ingredients that are easy to recognize and understand.”

Supermarket dietitian Leah McGrath thinks terms like “real food,” “whole food” and “clean eating” are elitist and simply give certain foods and eaters undeserved status. To McGrath, “real food” is anything we can safely consume. Rebecca Scritchfield also takes issue with the term “real food.” In her opinion, it’s a term that’s full of judgment. That said, Scritchfield thinks of “real food” as food you can make in your kitchen, even if you don’t. “I can make homemade corn tortillas in my kitchen for fish tacos or migas, but I can also buy them. I can also make chocolate chip cookies with real butter and sugar and don’t need to use applesauce or other “replacements” to call it real. Like Scritchfield, Danielle Omar thinks of “real food” as food that she can make or grow myself. She says, “I can make yogurt, but I can’t make Cool Whip or Velveeta cheese.”

Roseanne Rust believes that trendy and simple terms like “real food” that get pitched to and by the media as sound bites never explain the whole picture. She’s also tired of simple “X is bad” statements and “Avoid X challenges.” According to Rust, “Food and eating is personal. “Real” is not what matters. What matters are healthy eating behaviors and patterns.”

However you define “real food,” the bottom line is clear—at least to me. Most of us don’t own and run a farm, or grow most (if any) of our own foods. If we can produce some of our own food via a garden, or rely on a local farmer’s market for fresh, locally grown produce, fantastic! But if that’s not possible—or we haven’t yet made time for it (guilty as charged), following a few simple rules can help us feed and nourish our families without making ourselves crazy.

Eating foods—mostly plants, as suggested by Michael Pollan and so many of us registered dietitians—and choosing mostly foods that are made with minimal amounts of solid fats and added sugars (SoFAs) that provide empty calories can certainly help. Eating a dietary pattern consistent with MyPlate and keeping portion sizes of foods that don’t neatly fit into any recognizable food group can also help. (For example, foods like low fat chocolate milk or Hershey Kisses can be included as part of kids’ daily SoFA calories if that’s how they’d like to spend those extra calories).

For other tips on how we can help our kids eat better, check out How to Help Kids Eat Less and Better and Tips From Experts to Feed Kids Better from The Scoop on Food.

Kids' Favorite Snacks
Kids' Favorite Snacks
Kids' Favorite Snacks

How do you define “real food?”

Image of healthy lifestyle concept via shutterstock.


Add a Comment