By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D. , January 31, 2011 - 12:13pm
Since so many of us have resolved that we and our families are going to eat healthier this year, I was troubled to learn that nearly 40 percent of the total calories our children eat each day, about 800 calories, are so-called “empty calories”  with little nutritional value—or junk food. That’s far more than what most children have room for in a healthy diet, which ranges from 1,200 to 2,400 calories a day, depending on a child’s age, sex and physical-activity level. Sue Krebs-Smith, Ph.D., a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, found that the top sources of calories for American kids aged 2 to 18 years are desserts like cake, cookies, doughnuts and pie (138 calories/day), pizza (136 calories/day) and soda (118 calories/day). When she looked at soda plus other sugar-sweetened beverages (fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks), the total came to 173 calories per day.
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Unless your child is expending enormous amounts of calories (some young Michael Phelps, perhaps), I agree with Krebs-Smith and her co-author Jill Reedy that the plethora of choices available to our kids must change to provide fewer unhealthy foods and more healthy foods with fewer calories. Is this achievable, and if so, how?
One approach is food-product reformulation. You can find examples of this in the school-nutrition world. Dairy processors in most parts of the country have reformulated chocolate milk—by lowering the fat and added sugars—making it a lower-calorie choice. Domino’s created a pizza specifically for schools with a crust made from 51 percent white whole-wheat flour, a sauce with 35 percent less sodium than the traditional pizza and a low-sodium, low-fat mozzarella cheese. I had a sample at the Domino’s booth on the exhibit floor at a recent conference for dietitians. It wasn’t bad, and tasted less greasy than a standard fast-food pizza.
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But I’m not always a fan of reformulation. I think in some cases it gives kids a false impression of what’s healthy. Take the SUPER DONUT : a thick, plain donut with some added protein, vitamins and minerals that’s a popular breakfast item served in many schools (it even has its own Facebook page!). According to Kimberly Schwabenbauer, R.D., corporate dietitian for Super Bakery, “we all have to make choices everyday about what we’re going to choose, and there are better choices than others. Super Donut is a healthier option for this type of product.” I agree but nevertheless I’m still not big on turning otherwise unhealthy foods into seemingly healthy foods by fortifying them with vitamins and minerals.
Product reformulation, while a reasonable step, won’t solve the problem, though. Frankly, we need to limit our kids’ access to junk foods. Getting soft drinks out of schools and making fresh fruits and vegetables more available is a start.
Is there any hope that our children can learn to like “naturally” healthy foods? Can we turn this disturbing trend around?
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We’ve known for years that early exposure to a food leads to a preference for that food. My mother was a nurse and raised my sister and me on skim milk. I did the same for my sons once they hit preschool age. As adults, we all much prefer skim milk over low-fat and whole. If it seems that your kids are stuck in a food rut that consists of French fries, soda and other less-nutritious choices, try regularly exposing them to healthier choices. Don’t give up quickly, either: research shows that it may take 12 to 15 attempts before a child accepts a new food .
Rather than developing a routine of unhealthy choices, serve your children healthy foods and be patient—they’ll come around. I promise.
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