By Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN
Eating healthfully and preparing balanced meals and snacks for the entire family is important for everyone’s health. September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, so this week we’re highlighting some common unhealthy food favorites and providing some easy-to-make healthy swaps for you and your family to try.
1. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
Sugar sweetened beverages are a hot topic with regards to their effect on childhood obesity and on adiposity overall. Sugar-sweetened beverages include soda, sports drinks and juices that are processed and provide little nutritional benefit, but instead are loaded with calories and a lot of extra sugar.
Why are juices, sports drinks and sodas so bad?
Unlike fresh juices that are made from raw fruits and vegetables, processed juices are made primarily with fruit (think sugar) and contain many different forms of added sugars, and are heated to high temperatures (a process called pasteurization) before being sold on the shelf. During pasteurization many of the nutrients are degraded due to their exposure to heat, leaving only a small amount of nutrients in the beverage.
Aside from the nutritional profile and added sugars in sugar-sweetened beverages, children who have become accustomed to drinking juice from early childhood may continue to choose sweeter beverages over water; over time, sugar sweetened beverages in place of water and other lower calorie options may can contribute to both obesity and childhood type 2 diabetes.
It’s also important to note that many juices and sports drinks now contain artificial sweeteners as a way to cut back on calorie content; thus far there is no evidence that long term use of artificial sweeteners is safe- so it’s also important to limit intake of these types of processed additives as well. Read your labels!
Smart swap: Proper hydration is key for children. Making a simple fruit or vegetable infused water can make keeping hydrated more palatable and can help children become more accustomed to choosing water. There are so many benefits to drinking water, and adding fruits and veggies add even more.
Easy fruit and vegetable infused water: Start with a favorite vegetable such as cucumber and a favorite fruit such as orange slices. Slice 1/4 of a cucumber with 1/2 an orange and add to a large pitcher of water. Cover the pitcher and put it in the refrigerator, allowing the flavors to infuse into the water and enjoy.
2. Grab and Go Yogurts
Frequently marketed to kids, these types of yogurts are commonly loaded with a lot of extra sugar and artificial ingredients such as dyes and generally offer little nutritional benefit besides naturally occurring probiotics (why are probiotics so good? They may help to offer immune support and also to help promote healthy digestion).
Swapping a pre-packaged sugary yogurt treat for a more healthful home-made version can not only save extra calories, artificial ingredients and sugar, but can also provide many more nutrients.
Smart swap: Yogurt (no artificial ingredients and sugar) can be a great snack for kids. Yogurt offers immune-boosting probiotics, bone-strengthening calcium, and protein. Choosing a plainer variety of yogurt and making your own version of a healthy yogurt parfait can be a great way to get the healthful benefits of yogurt without the added chemicals and sugar.
If you’re staying away from dairy, a Smoothie Bowl offers just as much (if not more) flavor and nutrients.
3. Processed Nut Butters
Peanut butter and jelly is a classic kid-friendly meal, but often I find that the type of nut-butter being used is a more processed variety (hint: nut butter should only have nuts and perhaps salt on the ingredients list) that contains hydrogenated oils such as palm oil or other similar varieties. Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils contain trans fats that over time may contribute to heart disease (did you know damage to the blood vessels can start as early as age 3?). In addition, processed nut butters often contain sweeteners like molasses and other concentrated sugars.
Smart swap: Locate a more natural variety of nut butter that contains only nuts and a pinch of salt, or simply make your own! Making your own nut butter allows you to choose the variety of nuts used, and also allows for healthy additions such as cinnamon or cacao powder for added flavor.
Make your own Homemade Maple Cinnamon Chia Almond Butter, or keep it simple and just add almonds to your food processor and start mixing. It takes patience, but it’s super easy and budget-friendly.
4. Processed Snack Foods
This is a big category of foods including chips, sugary snack foods and other processed snack foods. It’s difficult to completely avoid or even limit these kinds of foods because they’re usually marketed at children, which means your kids are probably already asking your for them, and are easily available, requiring minimal preparation.
Why are most processed snack foods so bad? Processed snack foods often contain a concentrated source of calories and sugar (in addition to artificial dyes and other ingredients) while having very little fiber and protein- two nutrients key for satiety. This means they’re easy to eat in a high volume, but provide almost no feeling of satiety. To put it simply, kids will only want more and more of these types of foods once they start eating them, so it’s always best to be prepared with healthy options on hand.
Although it’s not always possible to avoid processed snack foods altogether, being prepared with healthier options packed and ready to go can be a positive way to promote healthy snack consumption. Choosing more healthful options that contain few artificial additives and ingredients (hint: if you can’t read or pronounce the ingredients put the item back on the shelf) is made easier when prepared in the home; it’s also important to identify a few healthy ready-to-eat items at the local grocery store that can be purchased at the last minute.
Smart swap: Go for a walk in your local grocery store and identify 3 or 4 healthy items such as hummus, trail mix with raw nuts and dried fruit, and granola bars with no high fructose corn syrup and 3-4 grams fiber and protein per serving. You can also make your own Homemade Granola Bars that are so easy and so delicious.
5. Sugary Cereals
Cereals can be loaded with added chemicals, extra sugar and calories– and they’re certainly a kid favorite. Because all breakfast cereals are not created equal it’s important to identify a few in your local supermarket that are higher in protein and fiber- 4+ grams each (think satiety), but that are also lower in sugar and added sweeteners, dyes and other chemicals that offer little to no nutritional benefit and add extra calories that over time can contribute to weight gain and other health issues.
There are two types of sugar- added sugar and natural sugar, such as the kind found in fruit. When choosing more healthful cereals, it’s important to identify varieties with fewer added and artificial dyes and added sugar. To provide natural sweetness, add a small amount of natural sugar if necessary such as fruit, a fruit compote or even a small amount of honey.
Smart swap: Look for cereals with 4+ grams fiber per serving, 4+ grams protein per serving, less than 10 grams of sugar per serving (remember that 1 teaspoon is 4 grams), and no words that you can’t pronounce.
In fact, make your own cereals! We love healthy versions of Quinoa Oatmeal – you can serve that hot or cold.