Most parents realize that child nutrition is important, but the majority of kids don’t eat as healthy as they should. Nearly one third of American kids and teens are overweight and 9 out of 10 do not eat enough vegetables. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, kids between ages 2-18 get most of their daily calorie intake from two main food groups: milk and cakes/cookies/quick breads/pastry/pie, mostly in the form of processed snack foods. We defend this intake of empty calories because childhood should be fun and carefree. Believe me, I get it! I have three boys and not much makes them happier than getting to eat some type of junk food or sugary treat! The problem with saying that kids shouldn’t have to worry about what they eat is that the majority of American children are filling up on foods that provide little nutritional value.
I’m not going to tell you about how your kids should drink less soda, or eat fewer processed and fast foods in this post. Most parents realize our children should eat less junk. What I want more parents to understand is how poor nutrition can affect your child’s overall health and wellness in more ways than you may realize.
Food can influence the brain affecting moods, learning, and abilities. Think about how you feel when you go too long without eating. Do you experience brain fog or irritability? How about when you consume a large amount of sugar? Do you get a bolt of energy followed by a crash? Children can experience the same reactions. The difference is they may not be able to explain what’s going on. Instead, they may have an extreme meltdown or tantrum, act overly emotional or tired and be more defiant than usual. I am not claiming that food is the only cause of this type of behavior, my kids act out for plenty of other reasons, but I often find that simply providing a wholesome snack and some water can calm them down and change their attitude completely!
Lets talk about school performance. Have you ever received a letter from the school asking you to make sure your child has a healthy breakfast the day of a big test? That’s because study after study shows that children who eat breakfast have more energy and are able to focus better. My kids are in public school so we get one every year before they take the state standardized test and I always think to myself “they need a healthy breakfast every day”.
For years we have been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and this is especially true for growing bodies! Breakfast means break the overnight fast. Children and adults alike need that boost in energy after being depleted overnight. Otherwise, the body must depend on its reserves to get through until lunchtime. This can cause irritability, fatigue, and a lack of focus. Not just any breakfast will set them up for a successful day. If their morning starts with a bowl full of sugary cereal, the energy from these sugars and simple carbohydrates will enter the blood quickly causing the blood sugar to rise then fall shortly after. This drop in blood sugar can cause ups and downs in a child’s mood and difficulty concentrating. An ideal brainy breakfast will have the right balance of complex carbohydrates and proteins.
A healthy immune system also begins with our diet. Ingesting too much sugar can suppress the immune system for up to five hours. If your child starts the day with a toaster pastry and then heads to school or daycare, they are sure to encounter plenty of germs and odds are they are going to be sick more often. Avoiding too much sugar is essential in keeping your child’s immune system healthy, but there are other things you can do to give it a little boost. Encourage them to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day. Teach them to choose several different colors to ensure a variety of nutrients. Antioxidant rich foods such as berries, dark greens and beans are great immune boosters.
Drinking enough water is another way to ensure your immune system is at its best. Children need around an ounce of water per pound of body weight per day, more if they are sick or spending a lot of time outside in the heat. Probiotics are another great way to keep kids healthy. These are good bacteria that live in our gut and are responsible for nutrient absorption and supporting the immune system. They can be found in yogurt and kefir, a great way to get probiotics is to make a smoothie everyday. A probiotic supplement can also be given, I always have a bottle of these in my refrigerator for days that we don’t eat any probiotic rich foods.
The last thing I want to talk about is harmful additives found in so many of the processed foods marketed to kids. When choosing a packaged food I always read the ingredient label, if you can’t pronounce most of the ingredients or the list is very long, it’s probably not a very healthy option. As a mom, I know how convenient packaged snacks can be, but there are certain ingredients I try to avoid due to their questionable safety.
According to neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, (author of Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills), a child’s brain is four times more sensitive to these additives than the adult brain. Some children and adults may experience headaches, mood swings or have trouble focusing after eating foods with these additives. Did you know that artificial food dyes are made from petroleum? “These synthetic substances do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, co-author of the 58-page report, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.”
Paying attention to your child’s mood and behavior after they eat certain foods can help determine whether they have sensitivity issues. These additives serve no nutritional purpose whatsoever and the safety of consuming them is questionable, so why risk it? As a general rule, I avoid the following ingredients when shopping for my family:
- MSG (Monosodium glutamate)
- Artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame
- BHA and BHT
- Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite
- Artificial Colorings such as Red #40 or any other color/number combo
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
Foods can have a profound effect on our health, both good and bad. We all want to set our kids up for optimal health, success in school, and good behavior, but if the majority of their calories are coming from junk they are not getting enough of the nutrients they need. Something I always try to tell parents is that healthy eating doesn’t have to be all or nothing, finding that balance between what our kids should eat and what they want to eat is possible and I can help.
As a Certified Family Health Coach my job is to help you meet your family’s health goals by helping you implement simple, gradual changes in the food choices you make. Maybe your main concern is getting your kids to have a balanced breakfast every day, or you just want to reduce the amount of sugary and processed snacks they eat on a daily basis. All of these goals can be met by making simple changes in the way you shop and prepare foods.