Getting children to eat healthier food

August 14, 2007
If you are a parent wondering how your little bundle of joy turned into a snack-obsessed overweight child, you are not alone. One in five children in the United States is overweight and the numbers are growing at an alarming rate. In the past 30 years, the rate of childhood obesity in this country has more than tripled for children between the ages of 6 and 11. A 2005 Institute of Medicine Report found more than 9 million children over the age of 6 obese, making childhood obesity an epidemic in the US. As a result, children are developing chronic illnesses, like type II diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, previously only seen in overweight adults. “We live in an environment that encourages kids to be fat,” said Heidi Kaufman, a nutritionist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center who often counsels parents and children who need help. “Foods that used to be occasional snacks or treats are becoming the norm. Kids are eating high fat and high sugar foods every day rather than just a couple times a week.” Kids are also consuming more convenience foods that are loaded with ingredients that prevent them from feeling full. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is frequently used in everything from canned foods and ranch dressing to flavored chips, actually damages the part of the brain that controls appetite, so the person is less able to recognize when they are full and stop eating. “MSG is used to induce obesity in lab animals,” explained Kaufman. “So we have to wonder what it’s doing to the population eating it.” Researchers are looking into whether a mother consuming too much MSG during pregnancy can affect her baby’s future ability to control his or her appetite. “We’re now seeing normal weight parents with obese children and that’s unprecedented,” said Kaufman. The substitution of fructose corn sweeteners for sugar is another concern. The fructose corn sweeteners change the appetite so you don’t feel as full as if you had regular sugar. Kids who don’t know how to recognize when they are full are even more susceptible to the lure of “super-sized” meals and drinks. Portions are now so large at many fast food restaurants that a typical order of a double cheeseburger, large fries and milk shake has as many calories as 3 chicken breasts, two baked potatoes, 2 cups of vegetables, 2 rolls and a half cup of fat free chocolate pudding. So what is a parent to do? “The thing you don’t want to do is get into a control battle about food,” said Kaufman. “You should get your child in tune with their inner hunger. When they ask for food, ask them to describe how their stomach feels. If they are really hungry, offer healthy snacks. But often it’s more mouth hunger, not stomach hunger. They’re looking for something to snack on because they’re bored. Help them find something to do out of the house. If they’re not near the food, they’re less likely to be thinking about food.” Getting in tune with their hunger also means not pushing them to ignore when they’re full and eat more dinner. “Never tell a kid to have a clean plate,” said Kaufman. “That’s a recipe for an obese child. It’s okay to say they need to finish their vegetables before they have something else, but if they say they’re full and don’t want to eat anything else, let them stop.”Next week: Part 2 of our story on childhood obesity looks at getting kids to exercise.

>Tips for getting children to eat better

  • Set a good example. Children are more likely to eat healthy foods if they see their parents eating healthy foods.
  • Limit the snacks available in the house. Keep fruits, nuts, and other healthy snacks on hand and get rid of the high-fat processed food.
  • Don’t force children to clean their plate. Pushing children to eat more when they’re not hungry teaches them to ignore their appetite cues.
  • Pack lunches for school. Many school cafeterias serve high fat foods. Let your children help in the preparation of their lunch so they can choose lean meats and fruits and vegetables they like.
  • Avoid foods with MSG and fructose corn sweeteners. These additives keep people from feeling full, making them more likely to overeat. Many convenience foods are high in MSG and/or corn sweeteners.
  • Help them find activities out of the house. Many children eat out of boredom. If they’re busy and out of the house, they’re less likely to be thinking about food.
  • NHRMC offers nutritional counseling for families who need help. To make an appointment, call 343-7087.