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Bad Vs. Healthy Food Options For Our Children

On television, we are bombarded with advertisements that promote tasty, healthy, low fat, low sugar, "Taste Bhi Health Bhi" food – all designed to make us feel good about our choices. But...

As parents, we all want to feed our children good food and give them a healthy start to life.  However, it can be so hard to get our children to eat the best food given the struggle to balance things out with their picky eating and our busy schedules.

On television, we are bombarded with advertisements that promote tasty, healthy, low fat, low sugar, "Taste Bhi Health Bhi" food – all designed to make us feel good about our choices of food for our children.  In developed countries, over three decades of consuming an abundance of such food has only seen a dramatic rise in obesity and other health issues in the general population and especially in kids. Today we see this trend on the rise in India too.

One of the common problems is underestimating the level of damage some foods can cause to our children's health over the long term. The other problem is food manufacturers often disguise their products as being healthy when the reality could be otherwise.

This blog attempts to look at some of the worst category of foods that we offer to our children – the foods that we simply can’t afford to make a regular or frequent part of our children’s diets.  Some of these may be a big surprise to you and while  you may know that some others are not particularly good, you may not really know just how bad they are.

Here are my top 5 choices of worst foods we commonly offer our kids:

#1 Juices Fruit juice sounds like a healthy drink, a good start to the day, an easy but rounded and wholesome, full of vitamins drink we can offer our kids. We feel that it is after all “fruit”. Most juice manufacturers also confuse us with advertising terms like “Pure” “100%” “added Vitamin C” etc. making us feel that it is very good for us and especially our kids who are picky eaters.

The truth however is that most packaged fruit juices are known to contain as much sugar as many of the sodas like Coke, Sprite, Fanta etc. Fruit juices are also sometimes sweetened added and high fructose corn syrup (best avoided whether you are a child or an adult) which has been linked to many health problems besides just weight gain. Fruit juice is really not the same as eating an intact piece of fruit.

The Healthier Option: If you want the true benefits of fruit, offer whole or cut fruit instead.  Fresh fruit are fantastic for kids! If you offer a fruit juice to your child, make it a habit to dilute it. It also wise to teach your children to consider fruit juice as a treat for special occasions like birthday parties.

#2 Processed Foods

So what are processed foods? Most foods these days are processed - either mechanically or chemically. Chemically processed foods are those foods where several chemicals are added to enhance the color, change their texture, to flavour the food or to increase the shelf life of the food. Instant Noodles, frozen Chicken Nuggets & Sausages, French fries, Potato Chips, canned or bottled Pasta Sauce, Ketchup etc. are some common examples of processed foods that our kids seem to love.

Such Processed foods are generally high in calories, fat and sodium and have few nutrients. Regular consumption of processed food has been linked to risks for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Researchers also find that the additives in these foods can cause many health and behavioural problems in kids when consumed often.

While it may be impossible to eliminate processed foods completely from your child’s diet all the time, it is wise to ensure that it is kept to a minimum. Use the fresh, unprocessed version as often as possible. Generally unprocessed foods have a shorter shelf life and may cost more but the nutrition and health benefits of unprocessed foods significantly exceed that of processed foods.

The Healthier Option: Instead of buying jarred pasta sauces make your own at home….it is easy, healthy and so much tastier; or buy fresh meat and make chicken nuggets at home. Avoid the ready made or frozen varieties as often as possible.

#3   Sodas Another common and growing problem among kids and adults these days is the consumption of sodas like Coke, Fanta, 7up etc. Sodas are overloaded with sugar (high fructose corn syrup) anddo more damage than just weight gain. Regular and diet sodas have both been linked to kidney damage, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and diet soda has been linked to an increased risk of stroke.

Diet sodas contain artificial sweeteners in place of sugar. Research suggests that artificial sugars in diet drinks may actually increase a child’s craving for sugar thereby leading them to make poor food choices. In general, doctors recommend that kids do no consume artificial sweeteners at all as their long term effects on kids is still not fully known.

All sodas also contain caffeine while some Diet sodas contain even higher levels of caffeine. Pediatricians strongly recommend against caffeine in any form for kids.

Calories from soda are empty and provide no nutritional value for your child (or for you). It’s just sugar in a bottle. A 12-ounce container has about 10 teaspoons of sugar, which is like eating three bowls of ice cream! Can you believe that??Studies have also shown that soda consumption over an extended period of time is associated with poor bone health.

The Healthier Option: Sodas are best avoided by kids. Stick to water or 1 glass of diluted juice occasionally.

#4 Kids Breakfast Cereals In the Eat Right Plan I always emphasize on starting the day with a Healthy Breakfast. The key word here is Healthy! Not just a glass of milk….but a real breakfast!

In our fast paced lives most parents rely of boxed cereals like Choco’s, Honey loops etc. for breakfast and often times as an evening snack as well. Common breakfast cereals in the market advertise themselves as containing “8 essential vitamins”, “iron shakti“,“Nourishment served”, etc. etc. This does sound good till you actually read the Nutritional Information on the box.

A cereal may be fortified with artificial vitamins but it does not mean all the other ingredients in it are healthy too. It’s the unadvertised ingredients that need to be watched for. Cereals, especially the ones targeting kids, tend to have very large amounts of sugar, sodium and other processed ingredients, such that the nutritional value of the cereal becomes miniscule or non-existent.

There is no need to completely give up on cereal. It can be a good and easy start to the day. Just make it practice to read the ingredient list and nutritional value on the cereal box next time you go shopping. Don’t go by the advertising lines. Read the small print.

The Healthier Option: Experts recommend choosing a cereal containing 3 grams or more of fibre and protein per serving and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving. Whole grain oats served with honey or fruits is also an excellent and quick breakfast choice.

#5 Low Fat Foods Just because something is low in fat doesn’t mean it is healthy for you and it certainly doesn’t mean you will lose weight. Research suggests that children need fat to fuel their growth processes such as higher rates of protein synthesis, lipid storage and bone growth and to meet their high energy needs.

Very often Low fat foods are filled with trans-fats which are extremely bad for our heart and our cholesterol levels. Manufacturers also compensate for the loss of flavour with high levels of sugar and sodium. So while low fat food does not meet the nutritional needs of children – it in fact may actually do more harm than good because of the higher levels of sodium and sugar in them. Processed low fat foods are best left on the supermarket shelves.

So don’t rush to buy low fat foods or diet foods because you think your child is started to gain more weight that other kids his age. Watch his diet. Is he consuming the wrong kind of foods, is he getting sufficient physical exercise? Don’t put your child on a low fat or fat free diet unless your pediatrician has recommended it.

The Healthier Option: Avoid trans-fat. Keep consumption of saturated fats low. We all need healthy fat in our diet. Ghee is a great example of a healthy fat. Use it in small proportions and it is actually good for you.


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