The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released new nutritional guidelines designed to help Americans get and stay healthier in all walks of life. Babies and toddlers are included for the first time as the recommendations cover our entire lifespan.
The guidelines are called “Make Every Bite Count”. If we are to get and stay healthy, we shouldn’t eat foods that are basically empty calories – or worse, foods that actually harm us.
Because food can Harm us. An unhealthy diet can lead to obesity, with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and everything else that brings about obesity. It can lead to cancer, tooth decay, anemia, high blood pressure, weak bones, and many other problems. The saying “you are what you eat” is remarkably true.
Why healthy eating is so important for children
Children build bodies and habits that they will have with them for the rest of their lives. The track they ride on when they are young is very often the one they stay on and we want this to be a good track.
Currently, 40% of children are overweight or obese, and research shows they are likely to stay that way or get worse. Since children depend on parents and carers for food, this is up to us. We literally have their lives in our hands.
Starting with Infants and Young Children: Getting Groceries and Responsive Eating
For infants and young children, the recommendations include
- if possible feed with breast milk, ideally for at least the first six months of life. If this is not possible, infants should be fed iron-containing formula.
- Vitamin D for infants who are fully or predominantly breastfed
- Responsive feeding: Parents and caregivers are encouraged to pay attention to the clues babies give us when they’re hungry – and when they’re full
- Wait for solids to start until about 6 months of age.
When babies start eating solid foods, this is the first chance parents will have to influence their tastes and food choices. Therefore, parents are encouraged to offer all kinds of foods, including cereals fortified with iron, as well as fruits, vegetables, meats, beans and whole grains. You are also encouraged to feed babies potentially allergenic foods such as peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, seafood, dairy products, and wheat. Research shows that giving these foods can actually help prevent food allergies!
Foods To Avoid and Promote As Children Grow Up
According to the recommendations, what children shouldn’t have is anything that has been made or added with sugar. In fact, it is recommended that you have children zero Sugar in your diet before age 2. It has no nutritional value, so it really is empty calories – and a sugar habit is one of the many unhealthy habits that can be hard to break.
As children grow, the recommendations continue to focus on healthy habits. Children should get plenty of vegetables, fruits, grains (preferably at least half of whole grains), protein (lean meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, beans, peas, nuts, soy), dairy products (including lactose-free and fortified soy milk products), and healthy oils . You should be getting very little sugar or saturated fat (less than 10% of your calories should come from either) and limited sodium. Portion sizes should be age-appropriate (children and adults shouldn’t get the same amount), snacks should be healthy, and the plate should match the one on MyPlate: half fruit and / or vegetables, a little over a quarter of a grain, and just under a quarter of protein . This is not what most plates of food look like, if we’re honest.
The reality is that very few children in the United States have really healthy diets. For example, almost none of them eat as many vegetables as they should. We can change that, but it will mean all kinds of changes in habits – not just for kids, but for everyone in the household. Here are a few suggestions:
- Learn about healthy foods and healthy recipes that reflect your traditions. MyPlate Kitchen, MyPlate for Different Cultures (with food ideas from many parts of the world), and EatRight have lots of great information and ideas.
- Plan meals and snacks for the week. Too often we resort to unhealthy things because they are simple and available. Planning ahead can help, as can preparing some meals and snacks in advance.
- Shop healthy! Once you’ve made your plans, put the ingredients and healthy snacks on the list. Skip the soda, candy, and junk food. If it’s not in the house, you won’t be able to eat it.
- To eat together. Cook together too. Family meals are good for kids and families and the best way to set a good example.
- Keep trying. It can take a while for tastes and habits to change. Children – and many adults – may have to keep trying something before they discover that it actually tastes good.
Small steps count
It’s okay to do things in small steps, such as: For example, cross one unhealthy item off your shopping list each week, gradually add family dinners, or start with a bite of vegetables and start building from there. The most important thing is to start – and stick with it. This is how all good habits are built.
And good eating habits are habits that we need to develop because our lives and that of our children depend on them.
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