Everyone knows these days that American kids are getting fatter. The Surgeon General of the United States now ranks childhood obesity as a top public health concern. But it's not just their waistlines we need to worry about; our kids are getting sicker, too.
Pediatricians like me see more and more children with what I call the "high" diseases: high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Once upon a time, these conditions -- all related, in large part, to body weight and what we eat -- were called "adult-onset diseases." Not so anymore. Sometimes we see children as young as five years of age with these "highs." But while there's an epidemic of food-related illnesses, the good news is that they're preventable. How? Through good nutrition, and by shaping young tastes as early as possible.
I consider "taste shaping" to be one of the best and most important ways -- right up there along with immunizations and regular pediatrician visits -- that parents can help keep their kids healthy. Taste shaping means feeding your baby (as soon as she starts eating solids) fresh, nutritious foods that program her developing palate to prefer healthy fare. One of the most common complaints I hear from moms is "My toddler will only eat sweetened foods," or "My child hates green vegetables." That's because these kids' tastes have been programmed in the wrong nutritional direction. But they can be programmed to love unsweetened foods and healthier choices (including that dreaded broccoli and spinach), too.
I developed this "taste-shaping" concept by studying patients in my pediatric practice. Early on in my career, I noticed there were a group of moms who never let their kids eat junk food. At first, I thought they were just health-food nuts, but as I followed their children through the years, I realized they didn't get sick as often. Not only did they have healthier bodies, but they had healthier brains, too. When they entered school, they were less likely to be tagged with learning problems.
My observations led me to investigate an emerging science called metabolic programming, which studies how infants' pre- and postnatal nutrition can affect their health later in life, just as key events in early childhood can shape a person's personality as an adult. Depending on what you feed your baby, you can direct her growing metabolism toward developing either a resistance or a susceptibility to certain illnesses. Basically, it's a fancy way of saying, "You are what you eat."
Metabolic programming research is still new, but it makes great sense to me and I now discuss it with all the parents in my practice. Of course, shaping your baby's tastes to prefer healthy fare won't happen in a day, and the moms I see in my practice always have a lot of questions ("You expect me to never give my kid a french fry?" being high on the list) about how to do it. Here's how I answer them -- and how you can help your child grow up loving the foods you probably thought he'd hate:
The lowdown on junk foods
Q. I don't always have the time to prepare fresh, healthy foods. Is one fast-food meal or one cookie really so bad?
A. No. Nobody's perfect, including you. Sometimes you can't help but feed your infant not-so-healthy stuff, including cookies and french fries. I'm a firm believer in the 80/20 rule. If you serve nutritious, minimally processed meals 80 percent of the time, you don't need to worry about the 20 percent of the time when you loosen the rules a bit. But here's what I think: When you serve your child the healthy stuff (veggies, fruit, fish, and whole grains that aren't loaded with salt or sugar) most of the time, that's exactly what he'll grow to love. So when he does have candy or cake or soda, he may not overindulge.
Q. But I thought all kids love sweets. Do they?
A. Yes, all infants love sweets, as do adults. The taste buds for sweetness enjoy front-row seats on our tongues. (That's why serving fruit before vegetables as a first food won't, contrary to popular belief, cause your baby to have a lifelong affinity for sweets; we're already born with that tendency!) But while babies have a natural preference for sweet tastes (breast milk is very sweet), the rest of their taste preferences are learned. There are healthy "sweets" and unhealthy ones, though, and you can teach your child to prefer the former.
So instead of giving your tot a yogurt full of artificial sweeteners (such as high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame), for example, try plain yogurt sweetened naturally with bananas. Instead of packaged fruit snacks, offer fresh blueberries. Go for minimally sweetened cereals instead of the sugary, frosted kinds. Mash a banana with a fork over rice cakes, bagels, or pancakes instead of topping them with high-sugar jelly or syrup. There are lots of ways to indulge your child's sweet tooth without accustoming him to the cloying taste of overly sugared foods.
Q. If she never gets to eat any "fun" stuff, will my child feel deprived?
A. Well, remember, you don't have to make any foods completely off-limits. But, amazingly, the answer is generally no. When children grow up with a steady diet of nutritious meals and snacks, that's what their bodies end up craving. The kids of the "health-food nuts" in my practice tell me how sugar-sweetened, artificially flavored drinks make them feel yucky, in the same way that we might feel sick to our stomach after we've overdosed on exceptionally rich foods. And what child wants to feel yucky? I call this the "connection." Parents of preschoolers will often report, "My child is finally making the connection between what she eats and how she feels." That connection won't happen unless your child eats the right stuff from the very beginning. Kids who grow up with a steady diet of artificially sweetened, oversalted, and greasy fast foods don't register these foods as "yucky" because they've become used to them.
Q. Come on, won't my kid rebel when he's older by eating even more junk food, since he didn't have it as a child?
A. Possibly. Research shows that children whose eating was overly parent-controlled have a higher risk of developing more unhealthy eating habits later on. But shaping differs from control. With taste shaping, you're teaching your baby's body to tell itself, "That's not good for you," rather than controlling the child's eating preferences by saying, "You can't have that." I like to go by the "We" principle. Present eating just as you do any other family value or practice: This is how we talk, this is how we act, this is how we eat, and so on. With this positive approach, your little one will regard feasting on nutritious food as simply the normal way to eat.
Q. How can I tell which packaged foods are healthy?
A. Not all packaged foods are bad for you, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Here's an easy food-label lesson that I give to patients during well-baby exams. Try to steer clear of any products that contain what I call the "terrible three": (1) high-fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners; (2) hydrogenated oils or "trans fats"; and (3) any additive with a number symbol (#) attached to it, e.g., blue #1, yellow #5, red #40.
Also, always opt for whole-wheat breads over empty-carb white ones (white bread is teasingly referred to in my home as "air bread"). If you do that, and avoid the "terrible three," you'll have gone 90 percent of the way toward de-junking your child's diet.
William Sears, M.D., is a Babytalk contributing editor and the author of more than 30 books on childcare.