Let Them Eat Grapes: Promoting Healthy Eating Habits in Your School Age Children

By Levine, Barbara | Newsweek, June 16, 1997 | Go to article overview

Let Them Eat Grapes: Promoting Healthy Eating Habits in Your School Age Children


Levine, Barbara, Newsweek


Promoting healthy eating habits in your school age children.

Do your kids always push their carrots aside and reach for the french fries? Or hurry past the fruit bowl on their way to the candy drawer? If so, they're no different from most other kids as far as food preferences are concerned.

Unhealthy eating habits deprive your children of vital nutrients and can lead to obesity and a variety of other problems. So if your kids are slouched in front of the TV, gorging on salty potato chips and sugary soda, consider this: The time to start helping them make healthy food choices is now.

The fallout from obesity

Obesity in children has reached alarming levels in the United States. Among young people ages 6-17, the problem of being overweight has more than doubled in the past 30 years, with about 4.7 million (11 percent) of the children in this age group seriously overweight. (By the time Americans reach adulthood, one in every three is overweight.) Once a pattern of obesity gets established in childhood or adolescence, it's likely to continue into adulthood. Reversing it often proves difficult and frustrating. And overweight adults are at increased risk for developing coronary heart disease, certain types of cancer, stroke, diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure and gallbladder disease.

Unhealthy dietary patterns in children can also result in poor cognitive development, underachievement at school, lowered resistance to infection, fatigue and irritability. A short attention span, for example, is often linked to iron-deficiency anemia, which affects about 1 percent of elementary school children and 2-4 percent of adolescent girls. Something as simple as a bowl of cereal in the morning can provide the benefits of iron and fiber, as well as calcium from the milk (skim is healthiest). A banana or some berries will enhance nutritional value and add flavor.

Milk, no soda

Calcium strengthens bones and teeth and helps in muscle contraction, blood clotting and cell-membrane maintenance. If children are taught early on to consume milk and other calcium-rich foods on a daily basis, they'll be less likely to develop osteoporosis and other debilitating bone disorders later. Encourage them to drink three to four glasses a day. If they don't like plain milk, encourage them to drink flavored milk instead.

At the same time, try to keep them from consuming large amounts of fruit juices and soda. This can rob children of nutrients and, if their diet is already adequate in calories from food, can lead to an excessive intake of calories. It can also lead to early development of a "sweet tooth." Studies have shown a strong association between consumption of cola beverages containing phosphoric acid and bone fractures in girls. Soft drinks and sweetened beverages can also cause dental problems and ruin children's appetites. Cut back the soda, try to limit fruit-juice intake to less than 12 fluid ounces a day and encourage consumption of milk and good old-fashioned water.

Children are not born with the ability to choose nutritious foods. They must be taught by example. You'll find that it's easier to encourage healthy habits during initial behavior development than to alter unhealthy patterns later. Promote a positive attitude toward food from the very beginning. Besides serving as a preventative against the pitfalls of fast foods, junk foods, and other high-fat foods empty of nutritional value, it will dramatically increase your children's prospects for an active, fulfilling childhood and a long, healthy life.

Dr. Levine is an associate professor of nutrition in medicine at Cornell University Medical College and director of the Nutrition Information Center of the New York Hospital--Cornell University Medical Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, all in New York City.

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