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Healthful Eating for Children

We often get questions about how to teach children about healthy eating. Children learn about food best by seeing the adults around them eat in a healthy way -- plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains instead of refined grain products, and limited amounts of added sugars and added fats. Meals should not be a battleground. Keep junk out of the house, offer lots of choices, and don't make an issue over food likes and dislikes.

It's best not to make a big issue about "proper diet" with children; the concepts are complex and food should not be an issue or a focus of their lives. You set the example, and they internalize it without conscious effort. If they ask ("why can't I have ??? that Johnny eats?), treat it the same way you would any religious/ethical/ethnic position where yours is different from his friends': a matter-of-fact "this is the way we do it in our house" approach.

Don't fight what goes on outside your house -- your children WILL eat whatever is served at school, friends' houses, the mall, and everywhere else. But when they're grown, bringing up their own kids and becoming conscious of their own health, they'll remember what mother/dad said and did.

At all ages you can find plenty of opportunities to teach "stay close to nature" concepts that relate to food: where it comes from, how it's prepared: visits to farms, gardening with your kids, letting them help to prepare foods from scratch and later, cooking "lessons", etc. Keep it fun and sociable. Parents and teachers used to take these opportunities for granted, but today it's not as easy; lots of kids -- and adults -- have never picked an apple or seen a tomato plant, and don't know how to boil water.

If weight is a concern, increase physical activity. Large children may be athletically gifted and should be encouraged to participate in sports and do weight training. As with food choices, the example set by parents and other adults will be more important than anything you say. Get active as a family. Hike, bike or swim together. Don't make children feel they should diet or limit the amount of food they eat; just steer them away from junk food as much as possible. Kids will eat anything and everything outside the house, but you can control what's available at home.

There are no easy solutions to the alarming increase in childhood obesity, type II diabetes and early puberty, but you can make a start by limiting refined carbohydrates in your house, serving lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and other seeds, and getting the whole family involved in active recreation.

Checked 8/20/12

May 12th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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