Today, in the United States, 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese. Data shows that overweight kids are more likely to become overweight adults. It has been highly publicized that Diabetes, Cardiovascular disease and Asthma are all much more likely outcomes for people carrying additional weight.
What is less widely publicized is that many of these children are also starving; lacking vital nutrients to build and repair DNA, muscles, bone and brain cells. Sleep is disrupted and thus brain function becomes impaired, they find it harder to concentrate at school, struggle to reach their true academic potential and often slip behind.
Despite taking in way more calories than their body needs each day they crave nutrients and thus find themselves hungry shortly after eating. They are now caught in this vicious cycle of eating more than they need, gaining weight but not fueling themselves correctly. As parents and caregivers what can we do to provide adequate nutrition to our kids?
Pregnant Mothers and Babies: Wide variety for mom = wide variety for baby
Ideally nutrition starts before children are born! Babies are exposed to a variety of tastes whilst in the mother’s womb and so by eating a variety of foods we can help to give birth to babies who are more likely to accept a wider variety of food as toddlers. This is also true of breastfeeding mothers, the wider variety of foods you eat the greater variety in the subtle flavor of milk the baby is exposed to.
Toddlers: Try, try and try again
As toddlers, offering tiny tastes of all the flavors of food, be it bitter, sour, salty, sweet or a combination will help them to have a more developed palate. Toddlers go through cycles of willingness to try new tastes and flavors. If they hate something this week, they may not next week so keep introducing tiny tastes. Try serving a more pungent food, such as dark greens with a plain one such as mashed potato, rice or oat porridge rather than something sweet. Especially at this age, sweet food should be a whole food such as berries or stewed apples with no added sugar.
School Age Kids: Get kids involved
As young children move into school age, get them involved in making their lunches, even helping to pack lunchboxes to take with them. Giving them a small degree of involvement helps them to feel empowered and in control, thus more likely to eat a wider variety of foods. Again, aim for lunches that are predominantly whole food based. Over the week, aim for a good variety of fruits and vegetables with some complex carbohydrates and good quality protein. Feeding children a good quality protein at every meal will help their concentration in class and allow them to process the information they are being taught more effectively. It also helps to fill them up. Tummies are small at this age and trying to get them to eat a nutritious meal in twenty minutes can be challenging. So think of foods they can eat with fingers that look appealing and are fun to eat!
Teenagers: Increased appetites
Teenagers require a sudden increase in the number of calories they consume as they go through growth spurts, as any mom of teenagers will tell you! Unfortunately increased independence and access to their own cash can mean that most of these calories are empty in terms of nutritional value. Making sure they have a really filling quality lunch and snacks that can travel well to various after school activities becomes vital. Good quality containers that can keep food cool or hot for extended periods of time are worth investing in. Protein should feature in every meal and snack, think chick peas, nuts and seeds, plain full fat yogurt, vegetables, as well as eggs, and meat products. Fiber from vegetables will help keep them full and thriving and should be making up 1/3 to 1/2 of all meals and snacks.
Victoria Kucel is a Staff Nutritionist at Somerset Hills YMCA. To schedule an appointment, please contact her by email.
Learn more about Nutrition for Kids at the Y