Baby Steps

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011
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The Influence of the Media on Children’s Diets

By Angela Thomas

“According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than one in five children in the United States are overweight”. This is the statement Dr. David Ludwig uses to begin his article in Parent and Child, an early childhood focused magazine published by Scholastic. He goes on to say that the problem is affecting younger and younger children and is now threatening even preschool children. Along with being overweight, these same children are plagued by other related dietary medical issues including type 2 diabetes and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

He blames this problem on diets heavy in processed and fast foods. Between the busy life style of most families and the constant TV commercials children are watching that make bad foods look so good to kids, children have less and less opportunity to see their parents preparing and eating nutritionally balanced meals. Their “cravings” are dictated by the media and young children are particularly influenced by media messages. This is the age at which they learn eating habits that will stay with them for life. The key, Dr. Ludwig contends, “is to send your own messages about smart eating by making healthy choices and adopting good habits”. So influential are these messages that even the most consistent of parents will give in to the whining occasionally and buy something that may not be healthy for their child.

So, what can parents do to help? If you start early and teach children about good eating habits you can prevent future problems. By the time a child is overweight, food habits are well established and it’s harder to change behaviors. Young children are especially influenced by people who they love and who care about them. These, then, are the people most likely to influence making positive choices. Children need to learn not only about what and how much to eat, but they need to understand how to live a healthy life – including getting enough exercise, getting proper rest and hand washing to cut down on illness.

According to Dr. Ludwig, “Kids are eating more junk food than they used to”. Based on his research, three out of four children will eat a fast-food meal at least once a day. Although rates are lower for younger children, the influence on the younger ones is more alarming as they are laying down future habits. Soda is another issue for concern. Ludwig has watched as soda consumption has increased three times in twenty years. Then, children used to drink three servings of milk for every serving of soda, and now those numbers are reversed. No wonder there’s such a problem with children’s teeth in America – here’s an example of an imbalance of too much sugar and too little calcium, and at a critical time in the development of children’s teeth.

While fast food meals are part of the problem, Dr. Ludwig cites the decline of fat and the increase in processed foods and refined starches in diets as another problem. Adults have gotten the message that all fats are bad, when in reality, there are some fats that are good for you like the fats in nuts, avocados, olive oil, and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. If you eliminate all fats, you miss the healthy fats as well. As for carbohydrates, rather than vegetables, fruits and legumes, Americans are eating more white rice, pasta and breakfast cereals.

Refined starches have a high glycemic index. They immediately cause a spike in blood sugar — meaning you get a sudden burst of energy, but then the blood sugar level drops quickly, which stimulates more hunger, causing you to eat more. Foods with a low glycemic index, like vegetables and whole grains, keep blood sugar levels more stable and you can avoid the peaks and plunges.

Take for example a child who eats a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast. His blood sugar goes up, but then it crashes which triggers the release of stress hormones like adrenaline. By mid morning the child has low blood sugar and lots of adrenaline in his blood stream. He is fidgety and not paying attention and he’s feeling hungry. By now, his behavior resembles ADHD to his teacher. Frequent occurrences of this pattern and the child may be referred for additional testing, when all he needed was a better breakfast – some healthy fat, some protein, and some whole grain or fruit.

What constitutes a healthy diet for children? Dr. Ludwig recommends parents learn what fats and carbohydrates are, and which are healthy. Children need to eat a diet of good carbohydrates – whole grains, vegetables, beans and legumes. Cut down on saturated fats like those in fast food meals, but don’t eliminate fats completely from your child’s diet. Actually he says, “That’s good advice for all of us”.

Adapted from When Children Eat What They See, David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Optimal Weight for life program at Children’s Hospital Boston.

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