Healthy Eating, Family-Style; No-Fuss, Stay-Trim Strategies

An exhausting routine of early morning wakeups, soccer practices and work deadlines makes it understandably easy to put healthy family eating on the back burner. As more time-strapped families adopt drive-through dining, it’s no surprise that weight scales nationwide are buckling under the pressure.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than a third of American adults are obese. But the expandingwaistline epidemic impacts far more than just the quality of life among adults. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that 16 percent of children are either overweightor obese, with another 16 percent knocking on the door.

According to Sally Phillips, a registered dietitian and nutrition expert at Ohio’s Akron Children’s Hospital, a child that has an unhealthy body weight not only often has self-esteem issues, but is also at increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, elevated blood cholesterol and triglycerides, plus orthopedic challenges; all health problems that possibly could impact life expectancy.

More, childhood obesity that progresses into adulthood has been linked to increased artery wall thickness—a marker for atherosclerosis. Because many overweight children become plump adults, lifestyle modification at an early age is vital. Try these no-fuss strategies from experts to overcome today’s pitfalls to attaining family nutrition.

The un-family meal

The sit-down meal is an endangered family function, thanks to hectic schedules, time spent with TV, video games, the Internet and other electronic devices, as well as the perceived uncool factor of noshing with the folks. Yet studies show that family meals foster communication and usually lead to higher intakes of calcium- and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, plus lower amounts of unhealthy fats, sugar and sodium, says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, Ed.D., a registered dietitian and associate clinical professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York.

A supporting study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association confirmed that tykes that took in fewer family meals (and watched more TV) were more likely to be overweight. University of Minnesota researchers found that adolescent girls that ate often with their family were less prone to use cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.

Try this: Commit to a sit-down meal most days of the week, suggests Registered Dietitian Brenda J. Ponichtera, author of Quick and Healthy Recipes and Ideas. Don’t overlook breakfast as potential family time as well, counsels Ayoob. “Kids that eat a well-balanced breakfast do better in school, have improved vitamin and mineral intake and are more likely to maintain a healthy body weight.”

Liquid calories

Today’s average American household obtains more than 20 percent of its daily calories from beverages; on average, soft drinks alone account for 8 percent of adolescents’ calorie intake.

The rise in beverage consumption has mirrored the country’s slide toward rounder body shapes. “Satiety is less when you drink calories versus eating the same calories in foods, because drinks empty from the stomach quicker,” advises Phillips. “The extra calories from liquids can easily exceed what the body can use.”

The worst culprits are “liquid candy” such as soda and energy, sport and sweetened fruit drinks. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Harvard researchers confirmed that a greater intake of these beverages leads to weight gain in adults and children. “Plus, most sweetened drinks don’t have much nutritional value,” says Ayoob. Although they contain important vitamins, even fruit juices, such as orange, cranberry and apple, still pack a lot of concentrated sugars.

Try this: Phillips recommends limiting empty-calorie sweetened beverages and replacing them with unsweetened choices like low-fat milk, homemade iced tea and filtered water jazzed up with lemon or lime. Keep daily intake of fruit juice between four to eight ounces, and focus on eating whole fruits, instead.

“You can also freeze natural fruit juice in ice-cube trays,” says Phillips. “Pop these into [a glass of] water for a hint of sweet flavor.” Send children to school or camp with a reusable, BPA-free water container (stainless steel works well) so they get in the aqua-drinking habit. Also consider stocking the fridge with refreshing, potassium-rich coconut water.

Chicken again?

Never before has such a variety of foods been more readily available. Still, too many families fall into the trap of pre-paring the same familiar eats—like spaghetti, chicken, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread—week in and week out.

When children are repeatedly presented with the same foods, they don’t learn to appreciate new flavors and textures, which reinforces a picky palate and a fear of unfamiliar dishes, says Ayoob. From a body weight standpoint, an article published in Science suggests that when the brain isn’t gratified by food—which can happen when the family eats roast chicken for the fourth time in the same week—people are more likely to make midnight kitchen raids and add to their total calorie intake.

Try this: Once a week, have a new-food-of-the-week meal, featuring healthy ingredients such as quinoa, lean bison or kale, paired with family favorites, to encourage branching out. “Don’t throw in the towel if your child emphatically refuses it at the start. Research shows that it can take 10 or more times before a new food is accepted by a finicky eater,” advises Phillips, a mother of two.

She also suggests letting kids loose in the produce department to pick a new fresh item they are curious about, and then involving them in its preparation, so they are more likely to try it. “Or, substitute a familiar food, like apples, with pears,” Ayoob recommends.

Snack attacks

With so much unhealthy snack food marketed toward kids, it’s easy for youngsters to graze their way to a bigger waistline. Findings shared by Italian university researchers in the Journal of Pediatric  Gastroenterology and Nutrition specifically link savory, energy-dense snack foods with childhood obesity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the percentage of American children eating three regular meals a day has decreased over the past 25 years, while consumption of high-calorie, snack-type foods has gone up.

“Unhealthy snacking can have an impact on academic performance, energy levels and weight,” Ayoob remarks.

Try this: Don’t push the panic button if a child looks a little heavy while he or she is still growing, but it never hurts to give the household pantry and fridge an overhaul. First, get rid of nutrient-devoid chips, cookies and soda. “Replace them with healthier, portable fuel like nuts, baby carrots, low-fat string cheese and cottage cheese, yogurt and dried fruit,” suggests Ayoob. This does away with the good-versus-bad food battle on the home front.

Ponichtera likes keeping a bowl of varicolored seasonal fruit on the counter for when kids return home ravenous. She also recommends offering sliced veggies and fruit with tasty and nutritious yogurt, guacamole or hummus dip, or making after-school smoothies, using frozen fruit, healthy, low-fat milk and yogurt.

Because watching TV—including commercials extolling unhealthy foods—provides prime opportunities for mindless snacking (various studies link excess TV time with elevated body fat), consider pulling the plug after an hour. If snacking must be done in front of the tube, Ponichtera likes natural, unbuttered popcorn, deeming it excellent because it’s wholegrain, low in calories and high in filling fiber.

Meals in a hurry

The desire for something quick may be why half of total U.S. food expenditures today go to meals prepared outside the home. Studies suggest that the more we purchase fast food, the greater our girth. “This should come as no surprise, because what is often ordered is mostly out-of-control portions, higher in calories, fat, sugar and salt, than what would be served at home,” says Ayoob.

Even shunning the all-too-familiar drive-through for a smarter option could pack on pounds. Researchers reported in the Journal of Consumer Research that an individual is likely to underestimate the calories in a meal marketed by a restaurant as healthier, than those in a meal from a perceived offender. This mistake often leads to overeating through purchasing extra or bigger side orders, suggest the study’s authors.

University of Minnesota research suggests that adolescent members of families that rely on fewer than three purchased meals per week are more likely to consume healthier beverages and vegetables with meals and less prone to indulge in soda and chips at home.

Try this: Skip the fast food outlets and open The Joy of Cooking. “Preparing more home-cooked meals is all about planning and implementing time-saving strategies,” says Ponichtera. Take time during the weekend to create dinner menus for the coming week, with input from all family members, and make a detailed grocery list to facilitate an efficient visit to the health food store and grocery. Ponichtera also stresses the, “Cook once, serve twice,” trick, where home chefs purposely double the recipe and plan to serve leftovers later, adding different sides for variety.

When time is at a premium, tossing ingredients for stews or chilies into a slow cooker in the morning is a tasty and healthy option. “Always have a few homemade dishes thatcan be easily warmed up, such as lasagna, soups and casseroles, in your freezer,” adds Ponichtera. It also works to freeze leftovers in lunch-size containers to take to work.

On days when family members have time to cook, make salads and dressings (served on the side) or bean, vegetable and whole-grain side dishes ahead of time, so they will be ready accompaniments for the coming week’s entrées.

“Involving children in the meal prep not only saves parents time,” reflects Ponichtera, “but also teaches kids valuable cooking skills they might otherwise lack.” Everybody wins.

Canadian-based registered dietitian and nutrition writer Matthew Kadey also takes active vacations to keep trim.

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