The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released new dietary guidelines to help Americans be healthier and stay healthier at all levels of their lives. 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 want to be and stay healthy, we shouldn’t be eating foods that are essentially empty calories – or worse, foods that really hurt us.
Because food can hurt us. Eating an unhealthy diet can lead to obesity, along with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and all that obesity brings. This can lead to cancer, tooth decay, anemia, high blood pressure, weak bones, and many other problems. The adage “you are what you eat” is remarkably true.
Why healthy eating is so important for children
Children build bodies and habits that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. The track they take when they’re young is very often the one they stay on, and we want it to be a good track.
Currently, 40% of children are overweight or obese, and research shows they are likely to remain so or get worse. Since children rely on parents and caregivers for their food, it’s on us. We literally have their lives in our hands.
Start with infants and toddlers: first foods and reactive feeding
For infants and toddlers, recommendations include
- feed with breast milk whenever possible, ideally for at least the first six months of life. When this is not possible, infants should be fed iron fortified infant formula.
- vitamin D for fully or mainly breastfed infants
- proper nutrition: parents and caregivers are encouraged to pay attention to the signals babies give us when they are hungry – and when they are full
- wait to start solids until about 6 months of age.
When babies start to eat solid foods, this is the first chance parents have to influence their tastes and food choices, so parents are encouraged to offer all kinds of different foods, including fortified cereals. iron, as well as fruits, vegetables, meat, beans and whole foods. cereals. They are also encouraged to give babies potentially allergenic foods like peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, seafood, dairy, and wheat. Research shows that giving these foods can actually help prevent food allergies!
Foods to avoid and encourage as children grow older
What children are recommended not to have is anything made with or added to sugar. In fact, it is recommended that children have zero sugar in their diet before the age of 2. It has no nutritional value, so these are really empty calories – and a sugar habit is one of the many unhealthy habits that can be hard to break.
As children get older, recommendations continue to focus on healthy habits. Children should eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, grains (preferably at least half whole grains), protein (lean meats, poultry, eggs, seafood, beans, peas, nuts, soy), produce dairy (including fortified and lactose-free soy milk products), and healthy oils. They should get very little sugar or saturated fat (less than 10% of their calories should come from either) and limited sodium. Portion sizes should be age appropriate (children and adults should not be given the same amount), snacks should be healthy, and the meal plate should be like the one on My plate: half fruit and / or vegetables, a little more than a quarter of cereals and a little less than a quarter of protein. That’s not what most plates of food look like, to be honest.
The reality is that very few children in the United States have truly healthy diets. Almost none of them eat the amount of vegetables they should, for example. We can turn the situation around, but it will involve all kinds of habit changes – not just for the kids, but for everyone in the household. Here are some suggestions:
- Discover healthy foods and healthy recipes that reflect your traditions. MyPlate kitchen, MyPlate for different cultures (with meal ideas from many parts of the world), and Eat well have a lot of interesting information and ideas.
- Plan meals and snacks for the week. Too often we end up catching unhealthy things because they are easy and available. Planning ahead can help, as can preparing certain meals and snacks ahead of time.
- Buy healthily! Once you’ve made your plans, put the ingredients and healthy snacks on the list. Forget about sodas, candy and junk food. If it’s not in the house, you can’t eat it.
- Eat together. Cook together too. Family meals are good for kids and families, and the best way to set a good example.
- Keep trying. Changing tastes and habits can take some time. Kids – and many adults – may need to try something over and over again before they realize it’s really good.
Small steps count
It’s okay to do things in small steps, like cutting one unhealthy thing off the weekly shopping list, gradually adding family meals, or starting with a bite of veg and building from there. The important thing is to start – and keep going. This is how all good habits are built.
And good eating habits are habits we must adopt because our lives and the lives of our children depend on it.
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