How the Heck do I get My Kid to Eat Healthy Food? Part 3

Welcome back, loving parents! In this piece I’ll be discussing some of the less obvious worst foods that you can feed your child. If you’ve not had a chance to read Parts one and two of this series, you can do so here: Part 1 Part 2

My daughter and I frequent a local playground most days of the week. I love these times when she can run free, play with other kids, get sand between her little toes and burn off some energy. Due to my traumatic experience as a child, I am, admittedly, a little overprotective of her. She knows that when I say “hand” I want her to grab my hand for help getting up stairs, climbing up to the slide, and walking on the sidewalk. I care for her so deeply and want to protect her from any possible harm.

This caring extends into the foods she eats. At the park, as much as I try to mind my own business, I can’t help but notice the food and drink being consumed in abundance by other children: Doritos, Coke, candy, Gatorade, McDonalds, Red Bull. Some parents might defend their choices by claiming “it’s all about moderation”, but is there such a thing as moderation when it comes to junk food and nutritionally deficient drinks? With such a huge amount of children suffering from obesity and other health concerns directly connected to nutrition, I’d venture to say that “moderation” doesn’t work.

I sympathize with parents who reach for a bag of chips or a soda; sometimes it’s the easiest, cheapest, and simplest option. But there are an infinite number of healthy options out there, and replacing junk food with real, nutrient-dense foods can reinforce a lifetime of healthy habits. Once you get the hang of preparing snacks and meals that are truly good for your kids, it’s like learning to go down that slide at the playground for the first time: exhilarating.

Below are my 10 not-so-obvious worst foods for children, with suggestions for how to replace them:

1. Juice

Whether fresh-squeezed or pre-packaged, juice is loaded with sugar and empty calories. One glass of orange juice contains the equivalent amount of sugar as four Oreo cookies or an entire can of Red Bull. The ensuing sugar rush will spike your child’s insulin levels, and heightened insulin levels are the leading cause of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Replace juice with water and whole, fresh fruit. The body processes sugar from real fruit in a much healthier and efficient way than juice, due to the natural fiber being ingested. Another benefit is proper vitamin and nutrient absorption, which will help with sugar cravings and keep your kids feeling full longer. For thirst, drink water, and drink it in abundance.

2. Crackers

Yes, the old stand-by. Sorry, but crackers are just not good for kids. Most crackers are highly-processed salt-bombs, incredibly high on the glycemic index, and are terrible for your teeth. Replace crackers with baby carrots, celery, or a small cup of fruit. And if you just have to have crackers as an emergency on-the-go snack, look for ones made from seeds or brown rice.

3. Sports Drinks

Most than likely, your kid is not an endurance athlete, so stay far away from the brilliant marketing campaigns of sports drinks. They’re loaded with sugar, empty calories, artificial flavorings, and dyes. These neon-colored, toxic liquids are not health drinks. Replace them with good, old-fashioned water.

4. Ketchup

Is nothing sacred? Even ketchup? Well, most store-bought brands are loaded with sugar and corn syrup. Ketchup is also highly-processed and filled with preservative and sodium. Substitute with a homemade version, or another healthy condiment, like hummus, babaganoush, or salsa.

5. Mac-n-cheese (even the “healthy” kind)

Whether it’s touted as “all-natural” or “healthy”, most packaged mac-n-cheese is extremely high in sodium, fat, and calories. Because it’s low in fiber and high on the glycemic index, your kids will need to eat a lot of it before they feel satisfied. Make a homemade version, and try experimenting with the ingredients (for example, you can make “noodles” out of ribbons of vegetables, or add broccoli to make a more well-rounded and nutritious meal). I have a feeling that your additions won’t be Yellow No.5 or one-thousand grams of sodium.

6. Microwave Popcorn

Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting around with my family, watching a movie and eating popcorn. Fortunately, the majority of the popcorn we ate was homemade, with a little butter and salt. Obviously, it’s not the healthiest food in the world, but it might have well been the 1980s-version of kale chips compared to store-bought microwave popcorn. Butter flavoring (as found in microwave popcorn) gets its taste from Diacetyl, a substance which has been banned by some companies due to its link to respiratory illnesses and Alzheimer’s. The microwave-safe bags are coated with chemicals to keep oil from leaking through, as well as to prevent it from catching fire. Sounds like a tasty combination, doesn’t it?

7. Granola Bars

Store-bought granola bars, despite having a nutritional makeup almost identical to candy bars, have always been associated with healthy living. They’re normally loaded with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and highly-processed grains, making for a very high-calorie snack. Replace with homemade bars; try to include flax seeds, almonds, chocolate chips, honey, and any other healthy ingredients your child likes. Recently it’s become easier to find healthier store-bought bars, but they’re so easy to make at home (and, not to mention, less expensive).

8. Yogurt

The majority of store-bought yogurt marketed to kids is nothing but dessert masquerading as something nutritious. With as much as twenty-eight grams of sugar per serving, these brightly-colored and artificially-flavored kids’ yogurts can be detrimental. Try real Greek yogurt; it contains probiotics, which can greatly improve gut bacteria, digestive health, and immunity. Look for “live and active cultures” on the label. And if your little one needs that sweet fix in their yogurt, add a touch of honey or berries.

9. Hot Dogs and Lunch Meat

Most kids absolutely love hot dogs and lunch meat. They were a staple of my childhood diet, but full of potentially carcinogenic ingredients, sky-high levels of sodium, and fillers and artificial ingredients. Commit to offering unprocessed meats; they’re much lower in sodium. Even better: buy a whole chicken, roast it at home, and use the meat for an entire week’s worth of lunches and high-protein snacks. Replace with unprocessed meats that are lower in sodium.

10. Pizza

With the right toppings, the occasional slice or two of pizza is perfectly fine for most children. However, frequent consumption of cheese, processed meats, and calorie-dense crust will cause obvious issues. Keep in mind that each slice of pizza is equivalent to or larger than one slice of bread, and that’s just the crust! Even if pizza crust is made with whole grains or cornmeal, it can wreck havoc on the digestive track and directly impact insulin levels. If you’re going to let your little ones indulge in pizza, make it at home or buy the best you can get. Don’t double-up on cheese and meats; load it up with veggies instead. Having a colorful salad alongside the pizza helps kids fill up on other things than just the ‘za.

Always remember that you are the number-one example for your kids. Be it nutrition or your behavior, children pick up on your actions, whether positive or negative, because you lead by example. Choose to live a healthy lifestyle filled with real, whole, nutrient-dense foods; choose to cook the majority of your food at home, and sit around the table and talk about your day; choose to ignore the convenience of convenient foods.

Choose to remember that Hippocrates said “let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” suggesting that the choices we make every day can lead to a more vibrant and healthy life. Proper nutrition can prevent future diseases and chronic conditions years down the road.

Be well.

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Fear and Mirrors

ninja

As a child, I was infatuated with ninjas. My loving parents bought me a full (and very expensive) ninja outfit, and I still remember unfolding it, laying it out on my bed, looking at it, and creating a scenario in my head where I needed to gear up and save some lives. Putting the uniform on instantly transported me into the most intense action/adventure montage of my young life. I fantasized about the battles I would win, honing my skills with nunchuks and throwing stars, and felt an overall sense of purpose, power, and promise.

Although I was a child with a very active imagination, the feelings of empowerment I felt while wearing the ninja outfit were extinguished like a candle flame when I saw myself in a mirror. My reflection was my daily truth; I was disabled, I was chubby, I had a bad limp, and I looked ridiculous. I took off the uniform and rarely put it on again. My mind became the mirror. I was afraid of what other people would say and think about me.

Fear has controlled much of my life; it’s paralyzing and insidious. Fear of love, fear of judgment, fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of a life less extraordinary than I imagined; it’s hard not to wonder what I could have accomplished while crippled by fear. Maybe I would have enjoyed taking martial arts classes, instead of hiding my ninja outfit in the closet because I thought I was weaker and less athletic than the other kids. Maybe I would have gone to the gym and played sports after my major hip reconstruction, instead of eschewing a healthy and focused life for avoidance and stimulants. Maybe I would have completed a college degree while I was in my twenties, instead of quitting because I was worried about what the other students thought of me.

I no longer play this game with myself. A life of “what ifs” is toxic.

A few years ago, I began the process of facing my fears. I’m sure the aging process played a part in this, as well as meeting the woman of my dreams and having a daughter. I started practicing mindfulness, started asking for help, got clean, opened my mind, and took huge steps in order to create a sustainable and healthy lifestyle that has helped crowd out my inner demons. I’ve let go of fear and, in the process, have mended broken relationships, lost thirty-three pounds, worked on personal and professional goals, and achieved, for the first time, confidence.

I’ve also signed up for martial arts classes. I might not become an actual ninja, but I’ll finally look into the mirror with purpose, power, promise, and a smile.

How the Heck do I get My Kid to Eat Healthy Food? Part 2

Welcome back! If you haven’t read the first part of this series, you can find it here. In this installment, I’m going to discuss what kids really need in their diets. Not what they want, not what a parent thinks they need, but what they really need, nutritionally, to be – and stay – healthy.

Some of my suggestions might ruffle the feathers of those who follow a strict diet (Vegan, Paleo, etc.), but it’s very important to remember that each body is unique, and also that although an adult can (seemingly) subsist on a specialized, restricted diet doesn’t mean that that type of diet is ideal for a growing child. Even with the addition of supplements, completely removing entire food groups from kids’ diets can cause developmental delays and health problems later in life.

Most pediatricians, dietitians, and functional nutritionists focus on the following five nutrients as the most fundamental within a child’s diet:

Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for cognitive development, immunity, visual and neurological development, and heart health. Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that there is a direct correlation between the amount of Omega-3s measured in a child’s blood levels and their ability to concentrate and learn.

Fish (especially salmon, sardines, rainbow trout, and tuna – and wild, whenever possible.) and pastured or enriched eggs are the best natural food sources of Omega-3s. If you’re looking to try a supplement, cod liver oil is an excellent choice, and as a bonus, it also contains beneficial amounts of Vitamin-D. High-quality algae supplements are another great source.

Beware claims that you can get all the Omega-3s you need from flax, chia seeds, and other plant based sources. They contain the short chain Omega-3 ALA and research indicates that the ALA to EPA and DHA conversion is extremely limited.

Calcium

Yes, calcium does help build strong bones. It’s also crucial for proper blood clotting, cognitive development and learning skills, and oral health. Although milk delivers a large amount of calcium per serving, there are other ways to get the daily recommended amount, including broccoli, spinach, kale, bok choy, eggs, almonds, and Greek yogurt. In order to properly absorb calcium, it needs to be complemented with Vitamin-D; encourage children to try eggs, fish oil, and a healthy dose of sun exposure.

Protein

Think of protein as a long beaded necklace, put together from beads made of amino acids. Amino acids are crucial for maintaining muscles, bones, and internal organs. Phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine are the 9 essential (or indispensable) amino acids.

Proteins are the building blocks of life and it’s important to never skimp on your child’s protein intake. Easy sources of complete proteins include meat, eggs, dairy, quinoa, and hemp seeds, which can be supplemented with beans, rice, nuts, and whole grains (incomplete proteins).

-Complete proteins contain adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids that should be incorporated into a diet.
-Incomplete (or partial) proteins lack one or more essential amino acid in proper proportions.

Iron

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the U.S, symptoms of which include dizziness, shortness of breath, tingling in the legs, pale skin, and overall fatigue. To combat this, encourage children to eat red meat, egg yolks, dark and leafy greens, liver, artichokes, beans, lentils, and chickpeas (many of these are strong – and acquired – tastes, so work them into meals gradually, and cook in a cast-iron skillet to increase the nutrients).

Vitamin-D

Vitamin-D is absolutely crucial for bone and muscle development. The average American child only gets half of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin-D, which prevents Calcium from being properly absorbed. The “vitamin from the sun” is rarely found in foods, but can be ingested in low levels through eggs, fish, mushrooms, and liver, and of course in cod liver oil (which contains very high levels of Vitamin-D). Milk and cereals do not contain naturally occurring Vitamin-D, but are fortified with it.

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The five nutrients I’ve discussed above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the health and nutrition of your child, but by taking care to add these to their diets on a regular basis, you’re playing an active role in their current and long-term health. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, where I’ll talk about the absolute worst foods you can feed your child; you might be surprised to find out what they are.