Anyone has ever been overweight knows how difficult it can be to lose kilos. The weight comes on so slowly, perhaps just half a kilogram per month, it is often difficult to notice. Then one day we see that in fact we, or our children, have become overweight or even obese. For many obese adults, their future body weight was in large measure predicted by the time they were 5 years old. A major new study followed 7,000 children from preschool to adolescence found that a third of children who were overweight in kindergarten were obese by eighth grade. And almost every child who was very obese remained that way. Some obese or overweight kindergartners lost their excess weight, and some children of normal weight got fat over the years. But every year, the chances that a child would become overweight or obese grew smaller and by age 11, there were few additional changes. Kids who were obese or overweight stayed that way, and those whose weight was normal did not become fat.
This important study makes it clear that it is critical for parents to pay careful attention to their child’s weight, beginning from preschool. The study does not explain why this occurs, but it may be a combination of genetic predispositions to being heavy and households that encourage overeating and poor food choices in those prone to it. The bottom line is that if your child can make it through kindergarten at an appropriate weight, they are much lower risk of becoming fat later in childhood or adolescence. But how should you best manage the nutritional health and weight of your children? Every day there are hundreds of articles and thousands of advertisements promoting one product, or specific nutrient, or another. We spend a lot of time trying to sort out various kinds of “good” fats and “bad” fats, find the right balance of proteins and carbs, understand health supplement claims, and so forth. When it comes to diets and food, it seems everybody has an opinion and a story to tell. It can all be confusing- to put it mildly.
Fortunately, the food writer Michael Pollan has taken a different approach. In his book “Food Rules: an Eater’s Manual”, Pollan makes things quite a lot easier by trying to answer the simple question; “What should we eat?” Pollan’s research blends definitive scientific consensus with practical advice, some of which our own Grandmothers probably taught us as children. From this, he offers 64 simple and easy to follow “food rules” that we can apply and teach our children to live (and eat) by. This week I will share his guiding principle and a few of his food rules. Future posts this year will cover more. I encourage you to get a copy of his book!
Guiding Principle: Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
What does he mean by “real food”? Basically anything that is not processed in an industrial environment. Processing removes nutrients and adds toxic chemicals, and it makes food more readily absorbable, which can be a problem for our insulin and fat metabolism. Also, the plastics in which processed foods are typically packaged can present a further risk to our health. Avoid giving your children anything that was wrapped in plastic or comes from a factory or fast food business. What does he mean by “Not too much”? Most of us eat more than we need. Teach your children to eat slowly, limit portion sizes and not go back for second helpings. Do not eat while watching television; the TV takes our mind off our food, leading us to overeat and to enjoy our food less. Teach your kids to eat only until the hunger is gone- not until they feel full. Why “mostly plants”? Because plants have made up the bulk of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years. For most of human history, meat was rarely and unreliably available. Access to fruits and honey were limited to only a few days at certain times of the year.
Rule: Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
Ethoxylated diglycerides? Cellulose? Xanthan gum? Calcium propionate? Ammonium sulfate? If you wouldn’t cook with them yourself, why let companies put these ingredients in your children’s food?
Rule: Avoid foods that have any form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients.
Thanks to food science, there are at least forty types of sugar used in processed food, including barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, dextrin, dextrose, fructooligosaccharides, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, sucrose, invert sugar, polydextrose, sucrose, turbinado sugar, and so on. But sugar is sugar! As for artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or Splenda, research suggests that switching to artificial sweeteners does not lead to weight loss. It may be that deceiving the brain with the reward of sweetness stimulates a craving for even more sweetness.
Rule: Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.
Any substance with more than 5 ingredients on the label has almost certainly been manufactured in a factory.
Rule: Avoid food products with the word “lite” or the terms “low-fat” or “nonfat” in their names.
Naturally occurring fats are not bad for us. Eating too much of them is! Keep in mind that removing the fat from foods doesn’t necessarily make them nonfattening. Carbohydrates can also make you fat, and many low and nonfat foods add sugar to make up for the loss of flavor. We are better off eating the real thing in moderation than overeating “lite” food products packed with sugars and salt.