March is National Nutrition Month and two experts at Rutgers University–Camden have good advice for anyone trying to eat healthier foods.
Terri-Ann Kelly is an assistant professor of nursing at Rutgers University–Camden, where she is an expert in nutrition, obesity, and weight management. She also researches strategies to encourage African Americans to adhere to a healthful diet, and to engage in appropriate aerobic and muscle strengthening activities to protect their health.
“Breakfast is especially important for children because missing a meal has been shown to impair a child’s ability to be attentive and productive,” Kelly says. “Evidence suggests that children who do not eat breakfast are more likely to demonstrate poor performance on tasks, which require concentration, and have a shorter attention span. For adults, I think this question is a bit more complex. With the increasing popularity of fasting diets, scientists have started to re-examine the existing research. While, a recent review confirmed that skipping breakfast is associated with overweight/obesity, an earlier review noted that when examining the relationship between body weight management and daily consumption of breakfast, the evidence is limited. I think what this tells us is that an individualized approach is best. The focus should be more on a mindful approach that takes into account the nutrient content of the foods we consume over the course of the day, as well as, paying attention to our physical hunger cues.”
“The ChooseMyPlate.gov website has copious resources which focus on nutrition for children. The recommendation is that children should consume a variety of items from the different food groups to meet their nutrient needs. We also have to keep in mind that foods should be chosen to suit the varying needs and appetites of children. The nutrient needs of a sedentary and an active child are going to vary across age groups. In terms of foods for growing body and brain development, the emphasis should be on nutrient-rich foods, which provide protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Examples include items such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain products, and lean meats.”
“I don’t believe people should feel guilty about consuming items they enjoy—such as cookies, pie, or ice cream—in moderation. I think that labelling some foods as good or bad can be harmful and lead to disordered eating. If you’re dealing with cravings, a great option is to find substitutions to manage those cravings. For the individual who enjoys sweet and wants healthier options, try replacing items with a high-sugar content with fruit or dark chocolate. Similarly, for individuals who crave salt, enjoy nuts, seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, etc.), and celery or apple with nut butter.”
Charlotte Markey is a professor of psychology at Rutgers–Camden. Her research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. She is the author of the books Smart People Don’t Diet and Body Positive, and the forthcoming The Body Image Book for Girls. Markey offers a few evidence-based tips regarding parents feeding kids meals:
• Don’t moralize food – food is not inherently good or bad. There are some foods we want to encourage eating more than others, such as fruits and veggies versus fast food, but making food “forbidden fruit” can backfire.
• Talk with kids about food in an adaptive way. Food is fuel for our bodies to do all sorts of important things – from studying to playing sports. Feeding ourselves is nourishing and a form of self-care.
• Food should be fun and enjoyed. Food preparation is something with which even young kids can get involved. Food prep skills can be valuable our whole lives.
• Model healthy eating behaviors, but you don’t need to narrate your food choices or make a big deal about it. Don’t draw attention to food as something that needs to take up a lot of mental space.
• Create a healthy food environment without being restrictive about some food indulgences. In other words, make it easy for kids to make healthy food choices most of the time.