Archive for the ‘ Must Read ’ Category

Are Canned Foods OK for Kids?

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Have you thought about banning canned foods from your kitchen, thinking that consuming them will harm your kids’ nutritional or overall health?

Perhaps you’re concerned about the potential dangers of Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used to line food and beverage cans and in plastics (eg reusable water bottles) to prevent contamination and spoiling. Recently linked with obesity in young girls and miscarriage risk in pregnant women, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says BPA is safe at the very low levels that occur in some foods. The FDA also “supports reasonable steps to reduce exposure of infants to BPA in the food supply.” In fact, in 2012 the FDA mandated that BPA could no longer be used in baby bottles and sippy cups, a practice that manufacturers had already phased out. The FDA also vows to “work with industry to support and evaluate manufacturing practices and alternative substances that could reduce exposure (of BPA) to other populations.”

While a report by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) found no direct evidence for health effects of BPA in people and confirmed that human exposure to BPA is very low, the organization is currently working with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to “optimize BPA-focused research investments to more effectively address data gaps and inform decision making.” If you’re concerned about BPA, click here for some things you can do to limit your family’s exposure.

Maybe you steer clear of canned foods because you think they pack in too much sodium—a mineral all of us, including kids, should try to curb in our diets. True, canned soups, beans and vegetables tend to be notoriously high in sodium. But while they still have their work cut out for them, many companies including Campbell Soup Company, Goya Foods and White Rose have pledged to reduce sodium in canned and other packaged foods as part of the National Salt Reduction Initiative. Although this move can certainly help, you can further reduce the sodium you find in canned foods when you drain and rinse them. One study found that doing so lowered the sodium by 9 to 23%. On the downside, draining and rinsing can also lead to some loss of other valuable nutrients, something worth noting.

Maybe you steer clear or minimize intake of canned foods because you don’t think of them as nutritious options. But according the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, research shows that canned and frozen foods are as nutritious as fresh. A recent study published in American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that nutrient scores for fresh, frozen and canned vegetables were similar and that processed—canned or frozen—fruits and vegetables are nutritious options for meeting daily quotas.

Although I’m all for making more mindful and healthful choices when grocery shopping, and for emphasizing fresh foods, I think canned foods and other processed foods have a place in the diet—especially when they pack in a bounty of nutrients that are important for growing kids. I also think it’s important for us to choose our battles when it comes to feeding our families. Canned foods, for example, are so convenient, have a long shelf life and can add key nutrients to meals that growing kids need. So I say mix it up and don’t feel guilty about giving your kids—and yourself—some foods that come in a can. Stock up on foods that come in a variety of forms—fresh, frozen and canned items, especially those that pack in a lot of nutrients and are low in or have no sodium or added sugar. If you’re concerned about BPA, buy items packaged in BPA-free cans. And if you want to lower your family’s sodium intake, look for reduced-, low- or no- sodium options.

Here’s a great recipe for black bean soup from the brand new book, Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide: Feed Your Family. Save Your Sanity! by registered dietitian Sally Kuzemchak. It features canned unsalted black beans, one of my family’s favorite dinnertime staples. According to Kuzemchak, “Canned beans are especially great because they’re a terrific source of meatless protein and iron that’s ready to go and totally affordable.” Enjoy!

Black Bean Soup*

Hands-on time: 20 minutes. Total time: 36 minutes.

Using canned beans and ready-made salsa streamlines the prep on this simple Southwestern soup. Pick your favorite toppings to add color and flavor: shredded cheddar, crumbled tortilla chips, green onions, and sour cream also work well. Half the soup is puréed to give a mix of chunky and creamy textures.


1 teaspoon olive oil

1/4 cup chopped onion

1 garlic clove, minced

2 cups organic vegetable broth

1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

2 (15-oz) cans unsalted black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup refrigerated fresh salsa

3/8 teaspoon salt

1 (4.5-ounce) can chopped green chiles, drained

1 diced peeled avocado  (optional)

1 tomato, chopped (optional)

Chopped fresh cilantro (optional)


1. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add onion and garlic; sauté 3 minutes or until tender. Add broth and next 4 ingredients (through beans); bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes.

2. Place half of bean mixture in a blender. Remove center piece of blender lid (to allow steam to escape); secure blender lid on blender. Place a clean towel over opening in blender lid (to avoid splatters). Blend until smooth. Add puréed soup to remaining soup in pan. Stir in green chiles, salsa, and salt; cook over medium heat 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

3. Ladle 1 cup soup into each of 4 bowls; top each serving with avocado, tomato, and cilantro, if desired. Serves 4 (serving size: 1 cup).

Nutritional information per serving:

Calories: 182; Fat: 1.2g (saturated fat: 0.8g, monounsaturated fat: 0.8g, polyunsaturated fat: 0.2g); Protein: 10.6g; Carbohydrate: 32g; Fiber: 9.4g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Iron: 2.9mg; Sodium: 1005mg; Calcium: 95mg

*Source: Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide: Feed Your Family. Save Your Sanity! (Oxmoor House, 2014) by Sally Kuzemchak.

Note: To lower the amount of sodium in the recipe, you can use low- or no-sodium broth and less salsa and/or table salt.

Do you use canned foods? What are your favorites?

Image of tins with bean, red bean, corn via shutterstock.

Disclosure: I was sent a complimentary copy of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide by the publisher.

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Should Kids Say No to Juice?

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Do you give your kids juice but worry that doing so will increase their risk for obesity or type 2 diabetes or nutritionally wreck their diets? Although 100% juice, a source of sugar (though it’s naturally occurring), has been maligned in the media and by many experts—even though it’s free of “added sugars” that should be limited in any child’s diet—there’s evidence that incorporating small amounts may offer perks without the peril when it comes to kids’ health and overall nutrient intake.

In a recent study published in Childhood Obesity, researchers looked at the link between intake of beverages (including 100% fruit and vegetable juice) in early childhood and change in body fat levels from preschool to adolescence. Dietary intake using multiple sets of 3-day food records was assessed for 12 years and body mass index, waist circumference and skinfold measurements were also assessed yearly in 103 non-Hispanic white boys and girls. Researchers found that those who consumed the most fruit and vegetable juice when they were young seemed to be better protected against the development of excess body fat during adolescence than those who consumed the least fruit and vegetable juice.

Although we need more data—especially as it relates to children—a recent review in PloS One that included an analysis of four studies done in adults concluded that intake of 100% fruit juice was not associated with risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In another study, researchers looked at usual reported intakes of 100% fruit juice among 2- to 18-year-olds. They found that compared with 100% fruit juice consumers, a significantly higher percentage of non-consumers had intakes below recommendations for several key nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, phosphorus and magnesium. In addition, a greater percentage of 100% fruit juice consumers exceeded recommended intakes for potassium—a nutrient that many children fall short on—compared with non-consumers. The researchers concluded that consuming 100% fruit juice is associated with improved nutrient adequacy and can contribute to a healthy diet in children and adolescents.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist and mother of two, I do keep some 100% fruit juice in my home. Although my sons, aged 15 and 11, drink it, they don’t have it every day. To help my own kids meet their daily fruit quotas (about 1.5 cups for my younger son, and 2 cups for my older son), I keep plenty of fresh, whole fruit around and always offer that first. That’s because whole fruit offers fiber and, calorie for calorie, usually packs in a lot more nutrients than an equivalent amount of juice. But when I do offer juice (I only buy 100% fruit juice that has no added sugars), I offer no more than a 6-ounce box or 8-ounce cup of juice (usually orange or apple juice)—amounts that are consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations (up to 4 to 6 ounces for 1- to 6-year-olds; and up to 8 to 12 ounces for 7- to 18-year-olds). I also offer it with a meal or hearty snack rather than in-between when the temptation to OD is too great.

While my younger son isn’t much of a juice drinker (he only likes mild-tasting fruits, and won’t touch candy or chocolate—which sometimes makes me question if he really is my child), my older son has more of a sweet tooth and has been known to down not one but two cups of cranberry juice when we go out to a restaurant once every week or so. Because my kids are each at a healthy body weight and because I know their usual juice intake is moderate, I don’t worry that drinking it will sabotage their diet. I do, however, think it’s wise for all parents—especially those whose kids are overweight or obese—to think twice about their kids’ juice intake in the context of their overall diet. Although we need more data, some studies suggest that increased intake of 100% juice is linked with higher body weight in children and adolescents who are overweight or obese. With that in mind, current Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that most fruit recommended should come from whole fruits (including fresh, canned, frozen and dried forms) rather than from juice, and that when juice is consumed it should be 100% juice rather than juices made with added sugars. I concur!

What’s your take on 100% juices in your kids’ diets? Yay or nay?

How much do you really know about toddler nutrition? Take our quiz and find out.

Image of juice glass and orange fruit via shutterstock.

Sesame Street Lessons: Healthy Eating
Sesame Street Lessons: Healthy Eating
Sesame Street Lessons: Healthy Eating

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Stress-Related Eating Among Kids: How Parents Can Help

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

If you’ve ever allowed stress to make you reach for a cupcake, bowl of ice cream or jar of peanut butter—even when you weren’t hungry—you’re not alone. Several studies suggest that while not everyone eats in response to stress—in fact, some say they skip meals when stressed—it’s quite common to turn to food to cope. I know I have! Using food for comfort every once in a while certainly won’t derail an otherwise healthful diet. And sometimes, having that donut may just be what you need to settle down! But doing it often—especially if the foods we turn to are high in calories and easy to overdo—can set us up for unhealthy weight gain and its many consequences. And when our children see us use—or abuse—food to temper stress, it’s more likely they’ll model that behavior and suffer similar consequences.

Although few studies have looked at the link between stress-induced eating and lifestyle factors and health behaviors in children and adolescents, a new study published in BMC Public Health sheds a little light on the topic. Researchers looked at the prevalence of self-reported stress eating behavior and its association with overweight, obesity, abdominal obesity, food consumption, sleep, eating family meals and other variables among almost 7,000 16-year-old boys and girls in Finland, Followed since their mothers were pregnant with them, the adolescents underwent clinical examinations and filled out questionnaires about their eating and other behaviors.

The researchers found that stress-related eating, which was highly prevalent in the teens studied, was linked with a number of negative dietary and health behaviors. Stress-related eating was found to be more common among girls (43%) than boys (15%). Those who reported eating in response to stress were also more likely to be overweight, obese or have excess belly fat than those who didn’t report eating in response to stress. Among girls, less sleep, infrequent family meals and frequent consumption of chocolate and sweets were more prevalent among stress eaters. Among boys, those who ate in response to stress also tended to eat more sausage, chocolate, sweets, hamburgers and pizza.

A previous small study published in Appetite found that among 5- to- 9-year-old children, those who released more of the hormone cortisol in response to stress had higher body mass indices (BMI) and consumed significantly more calories without being hungry than those who had lower increases in cortisol.

As parents, many of us want nothing more than to help our kids live happier, more healthful lives. But unfortunately, lots of situations and circumstances can contribute to stress and lead to less-than-healthy eating and other behaviors in ourselves and in our kids. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your kids are stressed, so a good first step is to look for the signs. To help you do just that, check out the American Psychological Association’s Identifying Signs of Stress in Your Children and Teens.

Although it’s much easier said than done, learning to manage our own stress in positive and productive ways is another great way to help our kids—especially when they’re young and impressionable—do the same.

Some ways we can help our kids better manage stress—and eat and live better—include encouraging them to get adequate sleep and having consistent sleep and wake times; providing an array of nutrient-rich meals and snacks that are eaten sitting down at the kitchen counter or table at designated times; eating family meals often and with minimal distraction; encouraging kids to stay active and fit; limiting screen time and time spent sitting; and having go-to, enjoyable activities that help them de-stress (examples include listening to music, doing a puzzle, talking in person or on the phone to a friend, reading a favorite book or playing cards or a fun board game). For more on stress and how to help kids cope, check out my previous Scoop on Food post.

How do you and your kids stress less?

Image of donut via shutterstock.

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Do Fast-Food Ads Fail When it Comes to Healthy Foods?

Friday, April 4th, 2014

For many, it might seem that having fast food outlets offer—and then promote—more nutritious items are steps in a more healthful direction. As I covered in a recent Scoop on Food post, fast-food chains are increasingly (albeit sparingly) offering more healthful options. And McDonald’s recently agreed to promote and market water, milk, and juice instead of soda as the beverage in Happy Meals and to include fun messages about nutrition or well-being in all its advertising aimed at children. Despite these initiatives, there’s evidence that fast food giants are falling short when it comes to advertisements for healthy meals aimed at children.

In a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics, Dartmouth researchers sought to determine how children depicted images of healthy foods in television advertisements for kids’ meals by McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants. Ninety-nine kids between the ages of 3 and 7 were shown in sequence two still images of the milk and apple slices and were asked, “What do you see in this picture?”

Researchers found that only 52% and 70% of the children (mostly older children) correctly identified milk from the McDonald’s and Burger King images, respectively. Eighty percent of children correctly identified apples from the McDonald’s image while only 10% correctly identified apples from the Burger King image. Although French fries weren’t shown in either image, 80% of the children thought they saw French fries in the Burger King ad, while only 4% thought they saw French fries in the McDonald’s ad. The researchers concluded that of the 4 healthy food images shown to the children, only the depiction of apples by McDonald’s was communicated adequately. Younger kids had a harder time identifying milk and Burger King’s depiction of apple slices misled the children, although no federal or regulatory actions were taken to correct this.

According to “Fast Food FACTS 2013,” a report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, while most restaurants offer healthier sides and beverages in their kids’ meals, they still have a long way to go to promote only healthier fast-food options to kids. The report encouraged fast food restaurants to stop marketing directly to children and teens to encourage consumption of unhealthy fast food. It also recommended that fast food companies limit advertising on children’s TV networks and third party kids’ websites to healthy kids’ meals only.

When asked if he supports marketing of healthy foods to children, James D. Sargent, co-author of the JAMA Pediatrics study, said, “Personally and professionally, as a pediatrician, I am against any marketing to children under the age of 12 years. Many children in that age range are unable to even grasp the concept that marketing is someone trying to sell them something. It is only at about age 12 that children are developmentally capable of understanding that companies pay marketing firms to design ads aimed at persuading them to buy a product, a message that they should view with a certain amount of skepticism. Prior to that age, any message aimed at selling products seems unethical to me.”

Although Sargent doubts that limits on food marketing aimed at children will be established in the near future, he believes that companies that decide to market to young children should be held to very high communications standards. At the very least, Sargent says they should “design and test their messages to ensure that they mainly communicate information about the product (not the premium) and that most children are receiving that message.” He adds, “If Burger King and McDonald’s agree to promote messages about healthy food, we should be able to show that children come away from the advertisements saying they saw healthy food.”

Some think children should not be targets when it comes to food marketing, period. In their post, The Dark Side of Marketing Healthy Foods to Children, Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and Michele Simon, a public health attorney, argue against marketing food—healthy or not—to children to best protect them. They say, “By begging and pleading with the food industry to improve how it markets to children, instead of working to end food marketing to children entirely, we are continuing to endorse a failed system in which industry gets to set the rules, break them whenever it pleases, and then take credit for doing the right thing.”

What’s your opinion?

Image of McDonalds Drive-Thru via shutterstock.

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Dietary Fat and Kids

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

A recent article published in Annals of Internal Medicine garnered considerable coverage by The New York Times, Reuters Health and scores of media outlets. In a review of more than 70 studies of more that 600,000 adults, researchers failed to find a relationship between saturated and polyunsaturated fat intake and cardiac events. The findings led the researchers to conclude that current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.

Although some may interpret the results of this study as a license to eat (or feed their families) fat without considering its type or quality in the context of the total diet, some researchers are critical of the findings—and the hype surrounding them. For example, in an article in Science Magazine, Walter Willet, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, says the authors “have done a huge amount of damage.” Willett also said “…a retraction with similar press promotion should be considered.”

And in an article in the New Haven Register, Dr. David Katz, coauthor of Disease Proof, suggested that readers “Chew Carefully on Headlines Before Swallowing Hyperbole” before buying into the notion that it’s suddenly good to eat more saturated fat. I could not agree more!

When it comes to kids’ diets, fat is not at all a four-letter word—in fact, it’s critical in more ways than one. Fat provides calories and essential fatty acids (they’re ‘essential’ because they need to be obtained by the diet since the body cannot make them). Fat also helps kids absorb vitamins A, D, E and K—fat-soluble vitamins that have vital functions. Fat also promotes satiety, or the feeling of fullness, and it enhances the taste, texture and mouth feel of foods to make them more enjoyable.

According to Institute of Medicine’s Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) designed to promote intake of essential nutrients and reduce chronic disease, 1- to 3-year-olds should aim for 30 to 40% of total daily calories as fat. For children aged 4 to 18, recommended fat intake is 25 to 35% of total daily calories.

Because there’s ample evidence that higher intakes of most dietary saturated fatty acids is linked with higher levels of total blood cholesterol and bad low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol—both risk factors for cardiovascular disease—current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend those aged 2 and older to consume 20 to 35% of calories as fat, with less than 10% of calories from saturated fat (and the rest from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). The guidelines also recommend keeping intake of trans fats—also linked with raising LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk—as low as possible.

According to the American Heart Association, Americans over age 2 should limit total fat to less than 25 to 35% of total calories, keep saturated fat to less than 7% of total daily calories and limit trans fat to less than 1% of total calories with the rest from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Although getting enough dietary fat is important, especially for younger children, too much dietary fat not only can raise blood cholesterol levels, but it can easily contribute to excess calorie intake and subsequent unhealthy weight gain. Although a lot of foods, especially those derived from animals (can you say cheeseburger), contain a lot of saturated fat, the greatest contributors of saturated fat in the American diet include regular (full-fat) cheese, pizza, grainy desserts (such as cookies, cakes, pies and donuts) and dairy desserts (such as ice cream, frozen yogurt and milkshakes). Although cheese boasts protein and calcium, most of the top saturated fat contributors are skimpy when it comes to the nutrients they provide. Although including them in pared down portions on occasion won’t ruin an otherwise nutritious diet, overdoing such foods also can crowd out more wholesome foods and beverages that support healthy growth and development in kids.

Although not all saturated fats (for example, some in chocolate) appear to raise blood cholesterol levels in the same way, I believe most sources (including coconut oil, which is rich in saturated fat) should still be limited to recommended intakes. But while I do encourage parents to pay some attention to the types and quantities of fat in kids’ diets, it’s far more important to focus more on their overall dietary pattern. Offering and encouraging kids to consume a diet rich in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds and beans and peas is essential to provide key nutrients, prevent disease and promote a healthful body weight.

Still, if you want to make sure your kids get enough (but not too much) fat to meet their energy and nutrient needs and enhance the taste of foods, you don’t need to completely avoid saturated fat and foods that contain them or count fat grams and make yourself crazy. Instead, follow a few of these tips to help your kids—and your entire family— consume dietary fat in a more healthful and mindful way:

Let them eat fish. Most kids (and adults) fall short on fish, an excellent source of two potent omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. A good rule of thumb is to offer fish to your kids—and entire family—two to three times weekly. For better bets, check out The Super Green List that highlights fish that are caught or farmed responsibly, are low in mercury and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Go nuts. For kids who aren’t allergic and who are older (ideally age 3 and up), chopped nuts and seeds can easily add flavor and texture to salads, vegetable dishes, whole grain breakfast cereal, cooked oats and low fat or nonfat yogurt. Because nuts are a concentrated source of calories, keep portions small (a few teaspoons or tablespoons, depending on your child’s energy needs).

Cook with (and eat) healthier fats. Instead of preparing foods with butter or lard, use oils that have a higher proportion of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat; these include canola, olive, safflower, soybean, corn and cottonseed oils. You can also use avocado or mayonnaise to flavor foods. Keep portions to a few teaspoons daily (depending on your kids’ energy needs).

Do Dairy Right. Although modest amounts of full fat cheese, milk or yogurt won’t derail a nutritious, calorie-appropriate diet in kids, offer kids low fat or nonfat milk more often. If they like the taste of reduced-fat or low fat cheeses, it’s certainly fine to offer those. But if they prefer the taste of full-fat cheeses, stick to no more than 1-2 ounces daily to provide protein and calcium while keeping total and saturated fat intake in check. Using shredded or grated cheese is also a great way to add flavor to veggies or other foods—and because of it’s greater surface area, you can often use less and save calories (and fat) and while keeping kids satisfied.

Get the fat facts. Teach your kids to read food labels—specifically, Nutrition Facts Panels and ingredients lists to see how much and what types of fat different foods contain. Limit or avoid foods that list ‘partially hydrogenated oil’—aka trans fats—on ingredients lists. Foods that may have trans fats include margarines, cupcakes, cookies, baked goods, salad dressings, breakfast and granola-type bars, waffles, breaded foods like chicken nuggets and fish sticks, French fries and many packaged breads.

Downsize fatty fare. When you and your children want that cheeseburger and fries, ice cream or other fatty meal or treat, order or serve small portions and reduce their frequency. Offering 2 sliders instead of an oversized burger, sharing a burger at a restaurant, ordering 1 scoop of ice cream instead of 2 or serving it at home in a 5-ounce Dixie cup instead of a bowl can help kids eat less and still enjoy.

How do you help your kids eat more healthfully when it comes to dietary fat?

Image of food with unsaturated fats via shutterstock.

Test your toddler nutrition IQ.

Sesame Street Lessons: Limiting Sweets
Sesame Street Lessons: Limiting Sweets
Sesame Street Lessons: Limiting Sweets

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