By Roberta Anding, director of sports nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital
Our society is experiencing unprecedented obesity in children and teens, and according to the Center for Disease Control, one out of five children is overweight. The rate of obesity in our children has almost tripled in the last 30 years. The level of obesity seen by pediatricians and registered dietitians is staggering. I routinely see teens whose weight tops the scales at over 250 pounds. Although sugar isn’t the sole reason for the rise in obesity, it is certainly one of the contributors.
Children’s dietary patterns and food habits simply don’t meet dietary guidelines. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest limiting portions of foods with excessive amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and added sugars. The guidelines also stress the consumption of nutrient-rich foods such as skim and low-fat dairy and, of course, fruits and vegetables. This report indicates that cereal, the first food of the day consumed by many children, actually has more sugar than many desserts. Not mentioned in the report is how the amount of cereal served is often more than the serving size listed on the nutrition facts panel—meaning the amount of sugar can be even more than anticipated. This is particularly true for teens.
Although many factors drive the pediatric obesity crisis, food marketing plays a substantial role by driving children’s food choices and overall diet and influencing purchasing decisions of parents. The elimination of advertising of poor quality foods and beverages to children on television alone could reduce childhood obesity by 18 percent, or approximately 2.8 million children, according to a recent study. Parents, as always, have the most important role in controlling foods that are purchased. However, excessive marketing through television and fast food outlets makes families a target for purchasing foods the dietary guidelines seek to limit.
It is important for children to eat a quality breakfast. Studies indicate that children who consume breakfast have lower BMIs (body mass index) than those who skip this important meal. Good alternatives to cereals include scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, fresh fruit and milk. These represent a power breakfast that fuels young bodies and brains. A glass of low-fat milk and a banana is a quick breakfast for those who don’t have the time to sit down at the table. Think whole foods with minimal sugar and added fats. As a working parent, I know the struggle to get all of the children out of the door for school or camp. Try making a peanut-butter sandwich the night before with a juice box or milk for a speedy grab-and-go breakfast that can be eaten in the car or the bus.
What can parents do to choose healthy cereals?
- Choose cereals with less sugar and more fiber. Remember, sugar appears on the label in many forms, including malt syrup, corn sweetener, brown sugar, sucrose and honey.
- Look for cereals with a short ingredient list, excluding vitamins and minerals. Higher fiber cereals, containing approximately five grams, would be another good choice. Add higher fiber cereals gradually to avoid tummy troubles.
- Be a parent. Educating and setting limits for children is part of our role. This includes setting limits with what you will and won’t buy at the store. If sugared cereals are on your grocery list, consider serving a small amount as dessert.
Some other tips for healthy children:
- No sweet drinks. Liquid calories don’t register in the brain as food the same way solid foods do. That “super-sized drink” can be between 600 and 800 calories. Sweet drinks are more than just soda. Fruit punch, lemonade, sweet tea, flavored coffee drinks, energy drinks and sports drinks that are consumed outside of physical activity all count as a sweet drink.
- Play. Children should move, and structured exercise programs are not the same as play. Sweating is good and, face it, we live in Houston, and sweat comes with the territory. Make sure your children have water available at all times. If your child plays an outdoor organized sport, a sports drink might be a good rehydration beverage, but not for regular play.