Of course, the sooner your kids follow a healthy diet, the better. "But don't sweat it if your child is already 6 or 8 years old," says Dr. Roberts, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston and aurhor of Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health. "While it's best to start when you're pregnant, it's certainly not too late to make positive impressions."
With that in mind, nutrition experts helped pinpoint four areas where many kids' diets fall woefully short of healthy levels. Shore up these trouble spots and your child will likely have added disease protection in the future -- even if your family's genes aren't the greatest.
The average 6- to 11-year-old consumes 22% of her daily calories from added sugar -- a whopping 29 teaspoons of refined sugar per day, according to the USDA. Some kids even routinely chow down 40 teaspoons of sugar daily! Don't think your child eats that much? It adds up fast: Just a cup of juice drink or lemonade packs about seven teaspoons; a 12-ounce can of soda sneaks in 10 to 13, and a piece of chocolate cake has eight.
Your goal: Reduce your child's sugar intake by half. Don't cut out low-fat or fat-free chocolate milk or yogurt since the sugar helps an otherwise healthy food go down a bit easier. Rather, trim your child's consumption of high-sugar foods like juice drinks (not 100% fruit juice), soda, candy, and sweets that have little or no nutritional value, suggests Rhonda Bell, Ph.D., an associate professor of human nutrition at the University of Alberta in Canada.
How, exactly? Replace juice drinks and soda with low-fat milk (up to two cups daily) and water. Don't buy big candy bars -- if your child wants a piece of candy, offer a Hershey's kiss or a mini Tootsie Roll. And save cakes and doughnuts for special occasions. "Your family can still have dessert every night," says Dr. Roberts. "Just follow the European custom of serving fresh fruit." You can make it fun by using a cookie cutter to slice it into shapes like kiwi stars or banana hearts.
Most kids love bread, crackers, pasta, and rice -- too bad they usually prefer the kind made with refined white flour. Overeating refined carbohydrates may increase your child's chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
So how much is too much? About half of your child's grain servings should come from foods made with unrefined flour. Rather than creating huge changes at first (serving barley rather than chicken noodle soup, for instance), start by incorporating whole grains into your child's favorite foods. For instance, make his grilled cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, spread a thin coating of peanut butter on a whole grain cracker (we like Kashi's new TLC -- short for tasty little crackers), and cook up pasta with noodles that contain whole wheat flour (Eden Foods makes varieties that are a blend of white and whole wheat).
One caveat: Read labels carefully. Some foods, especially breads, that claim to be whole grain are really made from mostly white flour. Look for whole wheat flour as the first item on the ingredients list to be sure you're getting what you want.
Most kids manage to get 30% or fewer of their calories from fat -- the correct amount for good health. "But children are consuming too much saturated fat and trans fatty acids rather than the healthy fats from olive and canola oils, nuts, and fish," says David Katz, M.D., head of the Yale School of Medicine Prevention Research Center and author of The Way to Eat.
Much of the saturated fat comes from dairy products. Your kids 2 and older are probably drinking low-fat or fat-free milk but are still eating cheese and ice cream made with whole milk. Your family can save at least three grams of saturated fat per one-ounce portion by switching to low-fat cheeses (Cabot makes delicious 75% Reduced Fat Cheddar). Rather than serve ice cream, scoop out two or three mini portions of frozen yogurt with a melon baller and use them as an accent with fruit.
To trim trans fats from your child's diet, switch to trans-fat-free margarine such as Promise and cut back on snack foods like chips, microwave popcorn, cookies, and frozen fries and pizza -- most of which are filled with this artery-clogging substance. Although you can't determine how many trans fats a product contains by looking at the label, the phrase "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredients list gives a clue that it's there. Increasingly, products that don't contain trans fats are noting it on their labels.
Once you reduce your child's intake of saturated and trans fat, you'll have room for the healthier unsaturated types. Dr. Katz suggests letting your children snack on whole grain crackers topped with hummus, baking muffins and breads with canola oil, and serving mild-tasting fish for dinner. "Use a sauce or a marinade that children can spoon onto a serving themselves so they have some control over their meal," he says. One delicious option: fruit chutneys.
Many children are eating too many calories for their activity level. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board suggests that an active 5-year-old girl needs about 1,550 calories and a boy the same age requires about 100 calories more. Yet current USDA data show that the average 5-year-old eats 1,763 calories daily. The long-term consequence of this: Research clearly indicates that being obese sets a child up for becoming an obese adult. In the Bogalusa Heart Study, which tracked 2,617 children for 21 years into adulthood, 77% of the heaviest children at age 8 became obese adults. But only 7% of normal-weight kids turned out to be obese in adulthood.
To find out how many calories your child needs for her activity level, check out the children's energy-needs calculator at www.bcm.tmc.edu/cnrc. You can pinpoint the number of calories she's eating by plugging in the foods she consumes over the span of a few days at www.nat.uiuc.edu. If you notice that your child is racking up more calories than recommended, check with her pediatrician to see how her weight has changed in relation to growth charts. That's often a better measure than what you see because parents' perceptions of slim, normal weight, and overweight are becoming skewed. "We have parents worried that their normal-weight kids are too thin because so many children are larger than them," says Joan Carter, R.D., an instructor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX.
If your child needs to trim calories, the easiest categories to target are snacks and beverages. Offer vegetable-based snacks like snow pea pods with low-fat dressing rather than starchy ones like pretzels. Water down 100% fruit juice, or better yet, make an Italian soda by putting a few drops of fruit-flavored syrup in sparkling water.
Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2003 issue of Child magazine.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.