Thursday, June 23, 2005

Turning Picky Eaters Around...

Being a new mom, my concern for children's nutrition has increased exponentially since the birth of my son last August. So my interest was peaked yesterday when a friend emailed me about an article in the New York Times, Bananas, Maybe. Peas and Kale? Dream On.

In it, Laurie Tarkan laments that parents are surrendering to picky-eating habits, "Across the country, other parents of young children are also surrendering, serving macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, pasta and hot dogs rather than endure the mealtime stress of having their children eat well-balanced meals."

What caught my eye was this - "Experts have a smorgasbord of answers, a theory to support every point of view - and surprisingly little research."

Quite frankly we don't need research to communicate to parents that macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, pasta and hot dogs shouldn't be daily fare in a child's diet.

But she contines, "Many nutritionists and public health scientists say eating a high-fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables in childhood is important in preventing diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and osteoporosis, a position that other experts question. The research on the developmental and long-term health effects of poor diet in young children is scant."

Actually a quick search through PubMed shows that there is an abundance of data available that highlights the detrimental effect of a poor diet - a nutrient deficient diet - not only from infancy and childhood but also from before birth! Mom's eating habits have an effect on a child's development in the womb, potentially influence what they'll like as solids are introduced and, lest we forget, what the child is fed from the introduction of solids matters.

The research available isn't in the context of "picky eaters" or "poor eating habits" - it's in the context of inadequate essential nutrients, malnutrition and/or poor diet - keywords I'm sure were not searched looking for evidence....but it is exactly what picky eating is and the effect in the short and long-term is well documented.

It isn't rocket science to understand that chronic deprivation of essential nutrients leads to health problems. Children are not cognizant of the risk to their health - that is the responsibility of the parents. As noted in the article, the surrender of parents to their child's picky eating habits leads to "Picky eaters who only eat high-fat high-sugar foods may also be at higher risk for obesity."

The available evidence suggests it isn't only obesity these children are at risk for - chronic nutrient deprivation also is implicated in heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, and a host of other maladies.

Instead of these scattered bits of "don't worry, be happy", the article would have benefited from an in-depth look at the advertising that urges young children to eat high-sugar or high-calorie processed foods -- or one on poorer parents in America who have little choice but to feed their kids such foods on a regular basis.

Instead the article qualifies as one more piece of fluff enabling parents to continue fostering poor eating habits - afterall, why fight it when you can find some "expert" who will coddle the idea that it's okay to avoid stressing yourself to feed your children well.

In our fast-paced world, where we're constantly looking for more convenient, time-saving foods, we're doing our children a disservice for the long-term when we create the bad eating habits that are called "picky."

Introducing children to fast food that is cheap, quick and packaged for convenience starts the slipperly slope toward "picky eating" - once you're sliding along, going back is a scary thought. Here's a thought - make the time commitment while your child is an infant - make the time to prepare wholesome foods and only serve simple basics - at least one non-starchy vegetable, perhaps fruit, a protein. No small child "needs" cookies, cake, ice cream, soda or other empty calorie items.

If you're already well into toddlerhood or beyond and fighting the battle for healthy eating - know it's worth the effort! You are the parent and you have total control of what you purchase for your family to eat in your home or when you eat out - don't buy junk - your children will be exposed to enough of it outside your home and when they are spending time with others without you also contributing to poor eating habits too. Prepare simple meals that are made from whole foods and limit snacks - teach your children that "goodies" are only for special occasions, as a treat, and not something they're "entitled" to every day. Your children may not appreciate it now, but they'll be thanking you when they're healthy adults!

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