Guest authored by Dr. Angela Fals, Medical Director of the Pediatric Weight and Wellness Program at AdventHealth for Children.
The benefits of healthy nutrition cannot be placed in a pill. But reaping these benefits can be prescribed.
Working with a team that includes nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and counselors, we write prescriptions for nutrition and activity goals to help put families on the path toward healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.
As a doctor focused on helping children and adolescents achieve a healthy weight, I know the central role food plays in our health. In addition to shaping their physical and emotional health, eating well can help children avoid life-changing illness, both now and later in life.
At the same time, I know it can be very challenging and is not as simple as taking a pill as a solution. Finding ways for my families to make the healthy choice a little easier in a busy world is part of our philosophy at AdventHealth.
Here are nine ways to start to make small changes in your family’s health.
1. How To Spot a Problem
Many parents of kids who are not at a healthy weight may not fully be aware of the extent of the child’s level of overweight and the underlying associated diseases.
The best way to determine if your child is at a healthy weight is to compare their body mass index, or BMI, to other kids of the same age, sex and height and have a discussion with their child’s doctor. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a simple online calculator.
Children at or above the 85th percentile — meaning they weigh more than 85 percent of comparable kids — are said to have too much weight. If this is your child, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to reverse this trend.
Children at the 95th percentile are said to have obesity. If this is the case, it may be a good idea to seek out expert help to help your child avoid serious illnesses like fatty liver disease or high blood sugar.
2. Meal Plan as a Family
Before you head to the grocery store, take a few minutes each week to sit down with your family and brainstorm some healthy meals.
Yes, your kids may put in a pitch for the familiar, like mac and cheese or pizza. This can actually be a helpful suggestion.
When you’re introducing kids to new food, it’s best to take it slowly by taking something familiar and tweaking it to make it healthier.
Whole wheat macaroni or thin-crust pizza (bonus for replacing the crust with cauliflower) are small steps on the path to healthier eating.
There’s an added bonus: When kids are involved in picking the meals, they’re more likely to try new foods, even the healthier ones.
3. Go Shopping Together
When kids are old enough, taking them to the grocery store is a great way to teach them about choosing healthy food.
It’s also an opportunity to teach kids and teens how to understand nutrition labels. Learning how to read ingredient labels, portion sizes and nutritional information is a critical life skill for healthier bodies.
4. Prepare It Together
If kids are getting involved in planning and buying food, it only makes sense for them to start learning about how it actually gets made.
Cooking also provides opportunities to show children how food is grown. Starting a garden or even growing a small herb in a pot to put in a dish can spark a child’s interest.
5. Think About Habits, Not Diets
Ultimately, the goal is to make healthy nutrition a habit, like brushing your teeth. There’s no one path that works to get there.
In general, shop for these foods:
- Whole grain
- Fish or other lean protein
- Low-fat dairy
Experts sometimes call the food Americans tend to eat a “Western” diet, meaning one more popular in Europe, Australia and the Americas. That means you may have adopted this eating pattern as a child without thinking about it.
It may include much of the following:
- Red and/or processed meat
- Refined grains (non-whole grains that are missing one or more key parts of the grain, like white flour and white rice)
- High-fat dairy products
- Butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy
It’s not as if these foods are, by themselves, harmful. But a diet centered around them can be.
6. Word Watchers
Talking about weight and healthy eating can be a minefield. Thinking ahead of time about the words you’ll use can mean the difference between an optimistic discussion about achieving health and a negatively focused talk about weight.
Here are three words it’s best to find replacements for:
- Weight: In general, it’s best to talk about eating in terms of health, not weight. Weight can add negative emotions like shame, which can make kids and teens retreat into unhealthy habits. One exception to this rule: When weight is a serious problem and the child is older or more mature, it’s best to discuss more directly, ideally under the guidance of a doctor, nutritionist or other expert.
- Diet: When nutritionists and doctors talk about a “diet,” they usually mean the kinds of foods a person usually eats. But many people talk about diets in terms of foods to avoid in order to lose weight or to help treat or avoid certain diseases. These sorts of restrictive diets are difficult to maintain over time. It’s better to talk about the health goals children should aim for. The Mediterranean diet is one of the most balanced options out there for healthier food choices backed by research (called evidence-based).
- Restriction: Children respond better to positive reinforcement than rules about they “can’t” eat. If you substitute unhealthy foods with healthier options — like fruit-infused water instead of soda — the “can’t” foods will slowly get phased out naturally.
7. Be a Model
Learning doesn’t just happen at school. Kids are watching how their parents approach food.
Being a good role model is important. Kids can see you try new things until you gradually come to like them. Developing healthier habits, both in adults and children, is a gradual process with ups and downs. The idea is to make small yet consistent steps forward every day.
8. Try an App
Because nutrition is about everyday choices, apps can provide helpful reminders.
The app Nutrislice displays school lunch menus and nutrition information for Orange County Public Schools and dozens of other districts in Florida.
Another option is Fooducate, which you can use to scan the barcode of food at grocery stores. Based on the food’s nutrition information, the app gives it a grade from A to F. Sticking to As and Bs is a good bet that you’re on the right track.
9. Think About Health Holistically
When you think about healthy eating, consider other healthy lifestyle choices. We recommend that children get at least an hour of activity per day.
Like most adults, many kids don’t get this much exercise. And, as with food, there’s no one answer. Some kids thrive in team sports, while others prefer to walk with friends.
Because nutrition plays such a big role in our overall health, AdventHealth for Children believes that food can be just as powerful as medicine. Seeing the connections between what your child eats and how they feel is part of how we help families find whole-body health.