The Truth About Healthy Eating

by William Sears, M.d.

The Truth About Healthy Eating

One of the biggest challenges parents face is trying to figure out what to feed their kids. With so much conflicting nutritional information out there, it’s easy to get confused about what’s best. For instance, some of my patients’ parents incorrectly assume that their own dietary rules and restrictions  — such as limiting fats or cutting out sugars  — apply to their kids.

Here, the truth behind some common myths so you can make sure you feed your children healthy foods that will help them grow. Just remember: Since kids have different body types and caloric requirements, you should talk to your pediatrician about your child’s particular needs.

William Sears, M.D., is a contributing editor to Parenting. His latest book, The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well, will be published next month by Little, Brown and Company.

Myth: Children should be on low-fat diets

Truth: Kids need proportionally more fat than adults. The reason: Approximately 60 percent of the human brain  — which grows mainly in the first two years of life  — is composed of fat. Eating the right amount of fat at this crucial time helps children develop healthy brains.

Kids typically don’t eat large helpings, but they still need calories to grow. Fats can help, since they pack the most calories in the smallest volume of food, providing nine calories per gram, compared with four calories per gram of carbohydrates or proteins.

How much fat do kids need? During the first two years, it should make up at least 50 percent of their daily calories (infants get all the fat they need from breast milk or fortified formula). Children ages 2 to 5 should get about 30 percent. However, this doesn’t mean you should start to feed your kids french fries and snack cakes  — it’s important that they eat the right kinds of fat. American children tend to eat an excess of unhealthy ones (animal fats and hydrogenated fats often found in junk food) but not enough of the good-for-you variety, omega-3s, which are found mostly in fish and vegetable oils. Omega-3 fats may be linked to improved eyesight, higher IQ, and increased attention span in kids.

Myth: Kids should eat three square meals a day

Truth: Almost daily I hear parents say, "My child is such a picky eater and never finishes her meal." But children eat the way they do  — usually small amounts throughout the day  — because that’s how they’re designed. Their tiny tummies  — only about the size of their fist  — aren’t meant to handle three big meals a day. Next time you place a heaping portion of pasta or a large piece of chicken in front of your 3-year-old, compare the size of her fist to the amount of food and you’ll understand why she leaves so much on her plate.

Grazing (a few small meals throughout the day) is a healthy way to eat. When a child, or an adult for that matter, gorges on a lot of food at once (especially foods high in sugar), blood sugar may rise, which sends a message to the pancreas: "You’ve got too much sugar in your blood  — let’s reduce it." The pancreas then releases insulin, which drives the excess sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells. As a result, the child’s blood-sugar level may plummet. Sticking to a normal schedule of meals and snacks is the best course of action. Here are two ways my wife, Martha, and I helped our kids master the fine art of grazing:

  • Keep a tray of snack foods, such as fruit and veggie slices, yogurt, or pieces of cooked chicken, on a low shelf in the refrigerator so your child can reach it. Encourage her to nibble from it often, especially in between meals.

  • When traveling or shopping with your child, don’t leave home without little bags of nutritious snacks, such as cheese slices, whole-grain crackers, carrot sticks (cut in long, thin strips), and grapes, for kids 4 and up.

    Myth: All sugar is bad for children

    Truth: Like fats, sugars (also called carbohydrates) have gotten a bad rap. Between 50 and 55 percent of a child’s diet should be in the form of carbohydrates, since they enter the bloodstream faster than any other type of food, which provides a quick surge of energy.

    But the kind of carbohydrate your child eats is extremely important. Whether a carb is considered healthy or not depends on how it behaves in the bloodstream. Some are called simple carbohydrates; these are so small that they pass quickly through the intestines into the bloodstream and cause the blood sugar to rise rapidly and then plummet. It’s best to limit these sugars, called sucrose (also known as table sugar) and corn syrup, as much as possible. They’re the ones found in candy, frosting, cookies, soft drinks, and almost all packaged treats. And don’t forget: Many "low-fat" packaged foods are surprisingly high in sugar, so make sure that you read the labels before stocking up on these seemingly innocent sweets.

    On the other end of the sugar spectrum are complex carbohydrates, or starches, which include vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Since they’re bigger than simple sugars, they take longer to digest, acting like a time-release energy capsule that steadily enters the bloodstream and maintains blood-sugar levels. Also, they don’t leave the stomach as quickly, making a child feel satisfied longer and less likely to load up on unhealthy snacks.

    Besides complex carbohydrates, other good sugar options for kids are fructose (found in fruits) and lactose (found in dairy products), both of which enter the bloodstream more slowly than simple sugars.

    Myth: Kids need more protein

    American children seldom suffer from a protein deficiency. In my 30 years of practice, I’ve rarely seen kids who weren’t getting enough. About 15 percent of their total daily calories should come from protein. To calculate your child’s needs: Kids ages 1 to 5 need an average of fi gram of protein per pound, meaning that a typical 30-pound 3-year-old would need only 22 grams of protein a day. That’s not so much. He can get this very simply from any one of these food combinations:

    • One cup of plain yogurt with fruit or granola

    • Three ounces of tuna on whole-grain bread

    • A peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk

    • A slice of pizza with extra cheese.

    If you make sure that your little one gets the proper fats and the proper sugars in his diet, he’ll automatically get enough protein too.

    Myth: Children should eat from every food group daily

    Martha and I used to believe this when we first became parents, but we soon learned that kids rarely eat according to the Food Guide Pyramid. Toddlers and preschoolers love to nosh according to their ever-changing taste preferences  — one week they may eat pasta with tomato sauce, and the next they’ll shun it for crackers with peanut butter. One day they’ll devour everything you put on their plates, and the following day they’ll barely eat more than a few bites. In either case, don’t worry  — rather than a balanced meal, your kids’ diets should balance out over the course of a month. That’s what matters most, not what they eat on a day-to-day basis.

    What if your child absolutely refuses to eat one particular food group, such as vegetables? Here are some tricks to get him to try the unwanted fare:

  • Camouflage a bowl of spinach or broccoli with tomato sauce or melted cheese.

  • Let your child dip carrots and red peppers in yogurt, hummus, or guacamole.

  • Puree a vegetable soup.

  • Grow your own garden  — even in an apartment. I did this with my family, and my children seemed much more likely to eat what they grew. That’s probably because they learned to appreciate the food.

    Myth: Preschoolers will not learn about nutrition

    Truth: Actually, parents should view the preschool years as an ideal window of opportunity to start to teach their children lifelong healthy eating habits.

    I’ve observed in my practice that kids who are fed nutritious foods from a young age tend not to overdose on junk when they get older. That’s because they’ve become accustomed to healthy tastes, while junk foods are foreign and more likely to cause an upset stomach. Kids who were brought up on junk are more apt to binge on it because their bodies have adapted to the artificial flavors of high-fat, processed packaged foods.

    I tested this theory on my own kids, who were put on strictly nutritious diets for the first few years. Of course, when they got older they still wanted fast food, soda, and other sweets. But they wouldn’t overindulge, as other kids did, because they’d start to have an upset stomach earlier on.

    Some teaching strategies that have worked for me:

  • View the supermarket as a giant classroom. Send your kids on a color-finding mission down the produce aisle and instruct them to pick out three reds, two yellows, and three greens. Teach them that the deeper the color, the more cold-fighting nutrients there are in the foods, such as deep-green spinach instead of pale iceberg lettuce and pink grapefruit instead of white.

  • Tell them to shop the perimeter of the supermarket  — the aisles that contain veggies, fruits, yogurt, and other healthy foods that will help them grow.

  • When our daughter Lauren was old enough to read labels, we taught her to notice when breads were missing the word "whole," as in whole grains. She also enjoyed finding the bad words on labels, such as "hydrogenated" on cereal boxes.

    Parents are the nutritionists of the family, and it can seem a daunting job. But armed with the right information about wise food choices and what kids really need, you’ll find it easier to make the proper decisions about what to feed your child.