As children grow from infancy to adolescence, their nutritional needs change and become more varied. Along the way, food-related behavior and habits are formed and lifetime likes and dislikes are established.

The foods you are feeding your children and the eating patterns they are learning not only affect their development now, but also lay the groundwork for their future health and happiness as adults.

What causes a child to become and to remain obese?

Statistics indicate that the child of obese parents is more likely to have a weight problem than the child of non-obese parents, but this is not entirely a matter of heredity.

It is as much a result of environmental and familial influences as it is of genetic inheritance. It is also quite probable that the fat parents’ bad food habits and life-style are emulated by the child.

Any child, regardless of genetic or familial influences, can become fat if he eats too much too often.

Being fat takes a serious emotional as well as the physiological toll in childhood and the psychological harm that results may actually become an integral part of the overeating cycle.

If your children weigh more than they should, here are some tips:

  1. Rid the house of junk food and have low-calorie snacks always available.
  2. Do not eat snacks in the presence of an obese child.
  3. Don’t use food as a bribe, punishment, reward, or as a substitute for meaningful relationships.
  4. Avoid the “clean plate” syndrome.
  5. Cut food into small pieces.
  6. Engage the child in mealtime conversation and avoid having him eat his meals alone.
  7. Encourage the child to eat slowly.
  8. Allow your child to eat only in a designated place.
  9. Educate the child concerning food choices available.
  10. Encourage physical activity.

The prevention and control of childhood obesity is a family concern. A doctor is needed to outline a weight-control diet for the child but, ultimately, its success or failure is greatly influenced by the encouragement and support which only the parents can provide.

Certainly, the war against junk foods is frustrating and anxiety-provoking for both parent and child. And with well-meaning but lollipop-laden friends and relatives, proliferating fast-food chains, and television commercials encouraging the food fantasies of children, the war may never be won.

However, with diligence and careful maneuvering, you can win enough battles to prevent your child from becoming a junk food junkie.

As in any battle, knowing your opponent’s strengths as well as your own weaknesses is essential. Here are a few tactics that have worked for others:

  1. Learn to say no… again and again and again! The parent of the tantrum-throwing toddler who says no and then, to silence the embarrassing screams, says yes, is only reinforcing the child’s bad behavior. The same applies to the six-year-old who tries to wear you down by endlessly citing the names of every child he ever knew who can have chocolate-coated biscuits for breakfast.
  2. Do not buy junk foods and don’t allow them in the house – not even a secret stash for yourself. Between-meal snacks should supplement your child’s diet not undermine it. For fun and variety, try frozen bananas on a stick or apple jelly (made with unflavoured gelatine and frozen juice concentrate). Instead of soft drinks and instant artificially-flavored drinks, keep a supply of assorted unsweetened fruit juice within your child’s reach.
  3. Stock your freezer with some homemade, individual-serving-size meals for those days when you just don’t feel like cooking and are tempted to take the easy way out at the fast-food counter.
  4. Don’t use desserts or trips to the ice cream shop as a reward. If you do, you will be giving junk food more attention than it deserves and increasing its desirability. Everyone appreciates a treat but make it just that – simply a treat, not a bonus for good behavior.
  5. Let your children help in preparing food. It’s a good opportunity to teach them about nutrition, and they enjoy eating food they have had a hand in making. Toddlers love concocting yogurt sundaes and sprinkling berries, nuts, wheat germ, or minced dried fruits on top. Children of all ages enjoy inventing their own blender drinks with fruits, juices, yogurt, and other healthy goodies.

In many ways, childhood nutrition begins the day your baby is born and lifetime habits can be formed from a very early age.

Milk is a child’s first food and, for the first year of life, the primary source of nutrients. If the mother is well-nourished, most of the baby’s nutritional needs are provided in her breast milk. While it does contain antibodies that are not present in commercially-prepared formulas, human milk also tends to be lacking in vitamin D and possibly vitamins A and C.

Solid food for infants

Cereals, followed by strained fruits, and then vegetables and meats are usually introduced during the first year of life, but the current trend is to avoid starting foods too early.

According to leading American pediatrician Dr. Ronald Garutti:

The recommendation of many pediatricians today is that the baby is maintained on human milk or formula exclusively for the first six months. There are three reasons for this. One, the baby who is fed soft foods too early may consume too many calories and become a fatter baby with all the implications for later obesity; two, there tends to be a higher incidence of allergic reactions if you start too many different foods too soon; and three, the baby simply doesn’t need them. Breast milk or formula is sufficient for the first six months.

Once the child does begin eating cereals, egg yolk, and strained foods, the opportunities for providing all the essential nutrients are greatly increased and vitamin and iron supplements are usually no longer needed. By eight or nine months, the baby is ready for coarser foods and is able to join the rest of the family at mealtimes.

Toddlers and preschoolers

The adequacy of a child’s diet during this stage depends as much on his developing likes, dislikes, and food habits as on the foods you offer. Commonsense and variety are your best guidelines.

To ensure an adequate diet, offer well-balanced meals supplemented with nutritious snacks and, most importantly, reinforce healthy eating habits by putting a limit on before-meal nibbling and foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt.

Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters, but parents should not be overly concerned about their sometimes bizarre food preferences, wide-ranging dislikes, and generally poor appetite. Dr. Garutti explains:

The toddler’s appetite will not be what it was when he was sitting in a high chair and the parents were spooning food into his mouth. There are physiological reasons for this. First of all, his rate of growth is considerably slower than it was during infancy and his calorie needs are correspondingly smaller. Also, he has greater independence. You can’t just grab him, sit him down, and feed him. He’s interested in his world and things other than food. You will usually see a slimming down at this time, and this is perfectly normal.

What’s a parent to do, though, if a child refuses green vegetables or develops an intense dislike for meat? For one thing, don’t stop serving them. From time to time bring out a green vegetable or a piece of chicken: children’s dislikes have a way of disappearing as suddenly as they begin. Try preparing the disliked food in other ways. For example, a child who will not eat spinach may relish a spinach souffle.

It is extremely important not to force a child to eat a food he doesn’t like or to insist that he clean his plate. Dr. Garutti suggests preparing a well-balanced, attractive meal, serving it in an unhurried manner, and if the child doesn’t eat it in a reasonable period of time, removing it.

If he doesn’t eat this meal, he will probably eat the next one or the one after that. Confrontations at mealtime are to be avoided because they may lead to greater behavioral problems.

To compensate for the loss of important nutrients in one particularly disliked food or food group, serve others that provide the same nourishment. Calcium, for example, is essential to tooth development and bone growth and repair. If your child develops a hatred for milk, offer other dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, and use them in cooking sauces and casseroles.

School-age child

Good nutrition is especially important for the school-aged child because he is building up body stores for the adolescent growth spurt.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to achieving adequate nutrition for this age group is their increased independence. A parent may prepare and pack a good healthy lunch for her child, but that does not necessarily mean that he will eat it. At this age, children usually get pocket money, and the change in their pockets may be quickly spent on sweets.

Dr. Garutti recommends that the two meals a day the child does eat at home be as nutritionally satisfying as possible. A well-balanced breakfast is a must. “Children who do not eat good breakfasts are frequently inattentive in school, sluggish and apathetic.” They are also more likely to buy sweets on their way to school!

Nutritionist Ruth Lowenberg suggests providing a variety of low-calorie, highly nutritious snacks. “If a child knows there will be a plate of biscuits waiting for him when he gets home, he’s not as likely to buy junk foods.”

The treats provided should be as low in refined sugar and low-quality carbohydrate as possible. Oatmeal biscuits, carrot cake, or banana bread are excellent. Fresh fruit – apples, oranges, and melon can become favorite after-school snacks. Yogurt – frozen or unfrozen – is also popular with many youngsters. Be sure you choose a brand low in fats, sugar, and without additives.

Adolescence

The rapid growth rate that occurs in adolescence is comparable to that during infancy. Consequently, nutritional demands are at a peak. Unless a teenager is overweight, more calories will be needed for energy during this period than ever before.

As growth slows down near the end of adolescence and sexual maturation is complete, energy requires merits will eventually decrease. To avoid the overweight-undernourished syndrome, calorie needs are best satisfied with wholesome foods, not the empty calories of low-quality carbohydrates, fried foods, soft drinks, and sweets.

Protein: Studies have shown that while boys consume more protein than girls (and tend to be better nourished), both usually consume more than an adequate amount to supply the demands of increased cell growth. Yet, there are exceptions. In the case of protein, teens on reducing diets (the importance of body image at this time can be extreme), fad diets and vegetarian regimes (an increasing trend) are more likely to be protein deficient.

If your teenager is seriously trying to slim down, ask your family doctor or pediatrician to prescribe a weight-reducing diet that meets his individual needs. If he is a blossoming vegetarian, both of you need to learn how to obtain sufficient protein and vitamins from non-meat sources and how to properly balance amino acids.

Calcium: The amount of calcium deposited and retained in bone during this time doubles in girls and triples in boys. According to the experts, most teenagers do consume adequate amounts of calcium. The exceptions? Boys whose growth rate is extremely rapid, and late blooming girls on weight-reduction diets.

Iron: Like infants, teenagers risk developing an iron deficiency because of their rapid growth rate, increasing blood volume and, in girls, the start of menstruation. Along with the commonly known symptoms of iron deficiency such as pallor, lack of energy, and loss of appetite, some nutritionists think that behavioral changes – decreased attention span and poor motivation for intellectual tasks – can also result.

To meet the increased iron needs of adolescence, serve iron-rich foods such as whole-grain breads and cereals, meat, fish, eggs, potatoes, and other root vegetables. When planning meals it’s important to know that the amount of iron actually absorbed by the body depends on the presence of other nutrients. For example, vitamin C, amino acids and fructose (a simple sugar obtained from fresh fruit) combine with iron and enhance absorption.

Teenagers are constantly on the run, skipping meals and gathering at hamburger havens and ice cream shops where the temptation to eat calorie-rich foods is ever-present and healthy alternatives are usually non-existent. This is the time to make your teenager realize what he eats seriously affects his well-being now, and in the future.

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