Helping kids put the brakes on unhealthy eating.

Helping kids put the brakes on unhealthy eating.

Being a kid in America today can be hazardous to your health: over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has tripled. But one of parents' worst fears-that their kids are forever locked into bad eating habits-may not be so well-founded after all. A new study reports that children who are shown some basic nutrition skills can, and actually do, choose to eat healthier foods.

In the Dietary Intervention Study in Children (DISC), the first long-term study to look at the effects of low-fat-focused education programs on kids, DISC investigators divided 663 eight-to-ten-year-old kids with high LDL cholesterol into two groups. While one group got "usual care" nutrition advice (pamphlets and pass-along materials), the other group took part in weekly intensive nutrition and behavior-modification sessions. Instructors used games and exercises to teach the kids to differentiate between so-called "Whoa!" foods that contained more saturated fat (bologna, whole milk or pie) and "Go!" foods with lower fat (fish, skim milk or frozen fruit pops). Parents were involved throughout, getting weekly briefings on what their kids were learning and how they could reinforce those lessons at home.

After three years, the authors found that kids in the intervention group chose to eat more than two-thirds of their daily calories from "Go!" foods, while children in the control group got only 57 percent of their calories from those foods. Kids who took the classes also ate less saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol and, on average, their LDLs also dropped a slight but significant 3 points.

The study's lead author, Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., R.D., of Northwestern University, believes all kids, and parents, can benefit from the kind of empowerment and knowledge a program like DISC provides.

"We were trying to teach kids the skills to choose the right foods on their own," she explains. "They had the freedom of choice, and it was a skill they could apply the rest of their lives."

It's also proof that parents' actions can make a difference, whether it's helping their kids decipher a food label, giving kids healthy foods to choose from or modeling smart eating habits themselves.

When Parents Say "Eat your vegetables"…

...their messages seem to penetrate best at snacktime. The Produce Marketing Association recently surveyed 1,000 families to assess kids' vegetable and fruit-eating habits and found that 46 percent claimed their offspring ate most of their fruits and vegetables as snacks. The second-best opportunity, apparently, is the supper table: 30 percent said the evening meal was the occasion when children were most receptive to eating fruits and vegetables. Some crisp carrot sticks at snacktime, a fresh salad at dinner-get them when the mood is right. -Joyce Hendley