When I was a kid, McDonaldland wasn’t a playground- it was a fictional place in Saturday morning TV ads. I was enthralled with those ads: the outrageous-looking puppets, the colorful sets, evoked a Disney-like magic. Unbeknown to 8 year-old me, McDonald’s was sued by the producers of another Saturday morning program, H.R. Pufnstuf, because McDonaldland looked a lot like their show. McDonald’s lost the suit, and its TV land disappeared.

Then, as now, kids were bombarded by advertisements for toys and food. Ad makers realized that kids are easily swayed and could use them to get to the parents, who had the money.  One of the earliest to realize this was Walt Disney himself, airing a TV show in 1954 called Disneyland.  Besides cartoons and live-action dramas, every episode had updates on Disneyland itself, then under construction.  The show built enthusiasm, and when Disneyland opened it was jam-packed, and remains so today.

Parents’ desire to have healthy kids, and the ad-created desire of kids to go to these colorful places to play and eat, creates a battleground at home.  Parents want good nutrition for their children; children want to eat the really yummy stuff.  Kids’ weapons- perserverance, pleading, and whining.  Parents’ defense against this- authority, and knowledge that too much of a good thing is bad for children.  However, this defense is undermined by the competing parental desire to please their kids and see smiles instead of frowns.

The key to winning the battle is two-fold.  First, know you’re in charge.  You can refuse to get caught arguing about where to go and what to eat.  I would say to my kids, literally, “this is not an argument,” shutting off discussion about eating out.  You also have control of the wallet and the car.

The second key is knowing the consequences of losing the battle.  You want your kids to grow up, not grow wide.  You don’t want high-fat, low fiber diets that cause cramps and constipation.  And the evidence is mounting that these diets in kids lead to premature high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes as adults.

Besides the McDonaldland advertising campaign discussed above, as a kid I liked the food too.  About once a year my parents would allow a quarter-pounder, fries, and a shake.  It was delicious, and every store offered the exact same food and flavor. Thanks to manufacturing and food science, wherever we went, McDonalds’ nationwide offered the same yummy menu.

For instance, why are all McDonald’s fries so tasty?  Until 1990, it was because they were fried in oil and beef tallow.  That year McDonald’s bowed to public pressure to reduce the saturated fat in its food and switched to pure vegetable oil.  To retain that beef flavor though, they added a manufactured, beef-flavored chemical.

Uniform deliciousness isn’t the only reason fast food has been so successful.  It’s also inexpensive.  In 1948, the McDonald brothers, Dick and Mac, invented their “Speedee Service System,” to make their California hamburger stand more profitable.  This kitchen automation, designed to be operated by minimum-wage workers, cut food prep costs.  Then under McDonald’s empire builder Ray Kroc, the hyper-efficient kitchen was supported by central manufacturing of food products, delivered by 18-wheeler.  “Dining out” was now an option affordable for every family, not just the rich, and not just once a year.

Finally, fast food is successful because…it’s fast.  No waiting a half hour for your entree; burgers and fries are in the sack in minutes.  These three advantages to fast food- speed, cost, and deliciousness, help explain why poverty and obesity go together.  Most impoverished families I see in the Emergency Department are headed by single moms who often work two jobs.  It’s harder for them to spend the time and money to shop for and prepare home-made, healthy meals.  Their kids love fast food, it’s affordable and quickly available- meal is done!

Obesity used to be a sign of wealth- only the wealthy could afford to eat too much.  Now, the poor can also be obese, with the high-fat and sugar content of manufactured food.  Their kids suffer the consequences- abdominal pain, constipation, diabetes, high blood pressure, and early risk of heart disease.  So it behooves parents to take control of their kids’ diets, to avoid ruining their bodies.  As a kid, I loved eating at McDonald’s, but only once a year.  That’s about the right amount! 

Two Peds In A Pod

This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Rachel Kumar, a Family Practice resident at University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.  

We see lots of kids with abdominal pain in the Emergency Department.  They’ll maybe have cramps or sharp pains, sometimes diarrhea, or have hard stools that hurt.  We’ll ask “what did you have for dinner last night?”  A common answer: Taco Bell.  Or McDonald’s.  Or “rice and gravy.”  Few families make the link between their greasy, fatty diets and their kids’ grumpy guts.

It’s no secret that feeding kids can be challenging.  You may want them to eat a healthy diet, but when they get old enough, kids can be fussy about what they like.  They have more control over what they eat as well.  Toddlers can be stubborn and refuse what you make; meals become battles.  School-age kids just go to the kitchen and snack when they’re hungry.  Teens hop into cars and drive to fast food joints.

Eating well is important for all ages, but particularly for children, who require adequate nutrients for their growing bodies.  Lucky for parents, they really have a great deal of control over the evolution of their kids’ taste buds, and can steer food preferences to healthier choices.

Taste development actually begins in the womb.  Amniotic fluid contains flavors based on mom’s diet.  After delivery, breast-fed babies get flavors of mom’s food through her milk.  To illustrate, after someone eats garlic, their breath still smells the next morning, no matter how much they brushed their teeth.  That’s because garlic is suffused through their bodies, and the smell is exhaled out their lungs, not their mouths.  For pregnant and nursing moms, that includes the placenta and breast milk.

So to all pregnant and breast-feeding moms out there, a well-balanced, healthy diet is not only important for you, but for baby’s developing tastes.  These women need to be good about what they eat- low fat, high-fiber, lots of fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.  That way their bodies are the best incubators for babies, and so babies also prefer healthy foods for themselves.

I know of one toddler whose parents fed her a variety of foods, and she learned to eat lots of things.  She also liked to put each of those foods on top of her head while she ate.  She did it for fun, smiling and enjoying her parents’ reactions, as peach juice ran down her forehead.

When babies reach the age of 6 months, taste preferences start to flourish- that’s when they start solid foods.  Introducing pureed vegetables before fruits is a great way to acclimate your child’s taste buds to low-sugar foods.  Giving many different baby foods is crucial; as many pureed vegetables, fruits, meats, and grains as you can.  This will make transition to a toddler diet easier, as they will have already been exposed to almost all flavors and will therefore be less likely to react adversely to a taste.

It’s also important to remember to introduce only one new food at a time at that age.  That way, if baby has an allergic reaction, or doesn’t digest that food well (has vomiting or diarrhea), you’ll know it’s the new food that caused it.  If a particular food is tolerated after 4 days of eating it, move on to the next new thing.

Toddler-hood is when routines and healthy eating can be challenging.  These kids  vocalize food preferences, and can be stubborn refusers.  Stock your kitchen with a variety of healthy choices, with no junk food choices that he can focus on.  Avoid buying the 20-count pack of chips, no matter how cheap.  If your toddler sees that, good luck getting him to eat his peas!

It’s important to establish routines: the family should sit down together for meals, three times daily.  These meals should feature most food groups, and toddlers need to try each one, if only one bite.  It can sometimes take fifteen tries before a kid decides they like a food.  If they refuse a bite, no treats!  If a toddler refuses to eat anything at all, don’t give into the fear that they’ll starve and make them something else.  We’ve never seen a child starve from refusing food.  When they’re hungry, they’ll eat.  Parents who fix their children different foods than they’re eating, catering to the child’s preferences, are creating diet monsters.   

Killing Time Constructively

A friend’s son wanted help picking out his sister’s Christmas gift.  “What are her hobbies?” the son asked.  My friend was stumped: “Buying clothes?  Talking on her cell?  Eating at Whataburger?”  After a good laugh, they got serious.  She liked to run, and she loved to cook.  Get her something for the kitchen?  A kit for baking something extravagant maybe?

Everyone’s busy, kids too.  My own daughter in college is stressed with school work, her campus job, and sorority duties.  I worry that when my kids are adults, will they be too busy to have fun, to re-charge and enjoy the world, rushing through life and wondering where it went?

Hobbies are fun things done for their own sake, and they’re important for being healthy.  It’s time spent forgetting worries, doing something only for the sheer joy of it.  I see many kids in the Emergency Department with anxiety and depression, who have no fun.  To be fair, they aren’t unhappy just from a lack of hobbies; they have plenty to be miserable about.  There’s bullying, in-born mental illness, living in abusive households.  But even for them, maybe if they just had something to escape to….

Developing hobbies is important for kids. Video games and other screen times don’t count.  I also in the ER see the consequences of too much sitting still- obese kids, some already with adult-type diabetes and high blood pressure.  I’m talking about activities where the brain and the body are engaged, rather than the computer.

There’s various sports to try, but kid sports can be too highly organized.  Super-competitive school and select teams often become another chore for kids, organized and run by adults.  Maybe something less regimented, like skiing, hiking and geocaching, biking, fencing, surfing.  There’s other non-sport things to consider- sewing, gardening, bee-keeping, carpentry, car repair.

Trying things doesn’t always mean success.  It took several activities for one of my daughters to find her fun thing, suffering through hours of soccer and piano lessons before she discovered karate.  My other daughter slogged through years of violin before she and we gave up, and left her to what she really loved- soccer and softball.

Some people readily take to hobbies, loving everything.  That was my father: cycling, bee-keeping, sailing, model trains, carpentry, cross-country skiing.  We all were included in his activities, so we could spend lots of time with him.  He was so busy playing, I’m surprised he got any real work done, though he did have a lauded career as a professor.  Some guys have all the luck.

Fortunately for our appetites, mom did the cooking, an activity not on Dad’s list.  She didn’t grow up cooking, but learned later in life, and enjoyed it.  She most liked the gardening that put fresh food on the table, and baking desserts.

We discussed the importance of hobbies above, and one that will apparently never lose popularity is playing in the kitchen.  There’s now whole cable networks devoted to cooking, with competition shows about making food with weird ingredients under eccentric conditions.  Kind of like mom used to.

“Eating in” is now what many call cooking.  In the last century, eating at restaurants or bringing home prepared foods was a luxury few could afford.  Dining out was too expensive.  Even birthdays, when I was a kid, were a home activity, including a scratch-made cake.  For mine and most families, going out to eat was a once-per-year treat, if that.

But then McDonald’s and the rest of the fast food industry made eating out inexpensive, and wildly unhealthy.  Now this cheap, fatty food has made obesity the new sign of poverty, rather than thin, underfed kids.  And fast food has made my job harder.  I see lots of obese kids coming in to the ER with complaints of belly pain.  When I ask what they had for their last meal, it’s invariably “Burger King” or “Taco Bell.”

So get your kids interested in the kitchen, and yourselves too.  When you cook, you know what goes into your food.  You control the ingredients, the fat content, the portion sizes.  Kids learn a life skill, have fun, and get to eat!  Also consider this when shopping for Christmas gifts for your kids.  My kids used the heck out of their Easy Bake Oven, and they still love the kitchen.

Nutrition—For Life!

This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Allan Olson, a family practice resident at the University Health Center here in Lafayette.  Allan is 61 years old, yet is on the long and stressful road of residency that makes a doctor.  How does he do it?  For one, he takes care of himself with a healthy diet.  And there is no better time to learn to eat right than as a kid.  Read more:

How can parents have the biggest effect on their children’s health? Providing a safe environment and promoting physical activity top the list.  However, your guidance with the greatest potential involves something we do every day- eating.  Nutrition is a huge opportunity to help your kids feel good and be well prepared for their day. Furthermore, your food leadership will create habits to insure good health for their whole lives.

What foods are best?  Research is showing that whole food, plant-based nutrition provides the maximum benefits for children and adults.  This means a diet consisting of vegetables and fruits and less animal products (meat and dairy).  Avoiding fast food and processed food (any food that comes from a factory) is also important to eat well.  These contain too much fat, sugar, and salt for your body.

For many people this will be a major change in the foods they eat, and it is important to say that such changes need not happen overnight.  The key is to begin selecting foods which consist of plant products that have not been fried or processed, frozen or boxed. Start using these foods in your family’s diet, and eventually meet the majority of your meal needs with them.

Food choices can influence whether kids develop certain chronic diseases.  Childhood obesity has become much more common, as have diabetes, asthma, and constipation. Studies show most obese childen will become obese adults, and can expect to develop adult diseases early in life, like high blood pressure and heart disease.  In other words, obese kids will live shorter and more miserable lives.  While many factors lead to these diseases, food is among the most important causes, and the most effective cure!

Two examples of how diet can influence health and illness:  Many children with constipation are cured when milk is removed from their diet, and fruits and vegetables added.  Some studies show best results when all dairy is stopped.  Know that eating milk and cheese is a matter of choice, not necessity, for children and adults.  We do not absolutely need milk or other dairy in a healthful diet.

Asthma provides another example.  Asthma has become very common in children. Asthmatic airways become inflamed, breathing becomes difficult, and kids wheeze.  Often kids with asthma also have allergic runny noses and itchy skin.  These can be treated with medications, but we are finding that in many children they can be prevented with a plant-based diet.  Specifically, the antioxidants in plant foods seem to both prevent and treat the inflammation in allergy and asthma.

Now food companies have seized this idea and manufacture foods with added antioxidants, touting them as more healthy.  However, studies suggest that antioxidants in processed-food are much less effective than in whole foods.  It seems the whole food must be eaten to get the health benefits, and that natural foods contain other beneficial components besides the antioxidants.

Here are some more hints on diet.  Breakfast really is the most important meal.  Be sure your kids eat it every day, if only some fresh fruit.  Have your kids eat at home as much as possible, at the table with the whole family.  This is an important social time for families, and you can be sure your kids are eating right.

Avoid sugary drinks like soda and other canned or bottled drinks.  Even those which are sugar-free and artificially sweetened are not good.  Sugar-free drinks still do not keep off the pounds!  The best drink is water, though some sports drinks are okay for electrolyte replacement while exercising, or if your child is sick with vomiting and diarrhea.

Finally, eating should be fun!  Invite your kids to help you plan meals based on plants. Include their ideas in selection and preparation.  Make trying new foods an exciting challenge.  Your children may need to try a particular food a dozen or more times before they like it.  Your choices for their diet will help shape their choices- for life!

Green can be good, not just good for you

I grew up in New Jersey, home to many chemical companies.  I remember one day in my fifth grade science class when some food scientists from one of those companies came to visit, and impress us with what magic they could do with chemistry.  One demonstration was giving us a glass of clear green fluid to drink.  We tasted it, agreed it was delicious, but could not place the exact flavor.  It tasted familiar, but not like the lime we expected.  The scientists then revealed the mystery: it was root beer flavored!  We all went, “Oh yeah,” and talked about flavor and color and presentation and expectations.

Food scientists have been working then and the decades since to perfect making processed foods delicious.  They use chemicals and processes with such artfulness that now a cake made from a box tastes better than scratch-baked.  However, in their processing in great taste and texture and color, they have processed out something more important: nutrition.  How can green beans compete with potato chips that science has designed to tickle our senses and brains to the max?

Nutritionists, pediatricians, and other child advocates have been fighting a losing battle against the food industry.  We say, “eat more fruits and vegetables and wheat fiber, they are better for you.”  However, if people listened and ate only what was good for them, then all the manufacturers of soda, candy, chips, boxed cereal, boxed processed food,  juice drinks, powdered drinks, instant dinners, frozen dinners, fast food, and snack food would be out of business. 

We have to get smarter than saying “eat healthy” and then forcing McDonald’s to put some apple slices in the Happy Meal.  The only way to make green vegetables able to compete with manufactured foods is to make them as delicious.  We have to saute them in garlic and olive oil, serve them with hummus and other healthy dips, marinate and roast them on the grill, simmer them into home-made soup.  And then we have to encourage our kids to try them.  It takes something like 14 tries for a kid to learn to like something, so we can’t quit after 13 tries.  Then, when a kid begins to like vegetables and other healthy foods, we begin to win the war on obesity and stomach aches. 

A much fonder memory of my childhood in New Jersey was when my mom would make home-made vegetable soup on cold winter days, delicious and warming after a morning playing in the snow.   That is a better green memory than clear green root beer, and the kind of memory we need to leave our kids to help them stay fit and healthy.

Keeping Kids Healthy and Fit, so They Can Be Kids

This past Thanksgiving I spent a day at one of my favorite havens- Boy Scout Camp.  No TV, plenty of outdoor activity for the boys, and limited junk food.  However, this past visit had its disappointments- many of the kids I taught were already obese.  There were kids surfing their iPhones around the campfire.  The Trading Post did brisk business in candy bars and soda. 

I usually don’t mind the Trading Post or iPhones.  However, most of those kids already have a steady diet of soda, junk food, and electronic entertainment every day of the year.  Goodies that were once a special treat away from home have become the norm at home. 

This over-consuming of junk food and entertainment leads to other medical problems besides being merely fat and idle.  These kids feel bad about themselves.  They do worse in school.  They fill doctors’ offices and emergency departments with complaints of stomach pain and constipation.  They will grow up to have early heart attacks, depression, diabetes, strokes, gall bladder attacks, cancers, knee and foot pain. 

Obesity is not entirely our fault.  Humans and other animals were biologically programmed eons ago to eat, store fat, and rest when food was plentiful, as a hedge for when food was scarce.  Now, in our modern society, times are always good when it comes to finding calories.  And biology had no need in the bad old days to provide us with an off switch for eating and resting.

Our biological bent to obesity is now also aided and abetted by the food industry.  In the 1950s the industry had a dilemma: how do you convince an already well-fed people to eat more, in order to accelerate profits?  They invented “food science,” where chemists manufacture additives to make food more delicious and more delicious-looking.  They invented advertising based on psychology to sell us that food and get us hooked, like addicts and their first taste of heroin. 

And it worked.  Who doesn’t love junk food, myself included?  Even in France, where they are famously fussy about their good food, McDonald’s does its biggest business outside of the US.  So how can we save our children from what we have wrought on them?  And what about our planet, which is groaning with the burden of  supporting our junk food habit?  And what of the unfairness, the sin, where billions in the world still go to bed hungry?

The answer is that our brains must take charge over our biology.  The hard work starts at home- don’t buy junk food and soda!  Don’t bring it into the house!  Make sure your kid gets a fruit with every meal.  Give them a vegetable with lunch and dinner- if only a handful of carrot sticks (my favorite go-to vegetable).  All grains should be high fiber- whether it is wheat bread or high fiber breakfast cereal.  Dinner should be eaten with all the family members together, talking about their days and their lives, practicing conversation, stimulating each others’ brains,  rather than watching TV. 

More hard work- be firm with your kids about the TV.  It should not be turned on at all on school days.  Computers should only be used for school work on school days- not for surfing, watching videos, or playing electronic games.  Kids should never have a TV,  computer, or game system in their bedroom.

If your kids are bored and whining and start to fight, stay strong!  That boredom is incentive for them to go out and start exploring and making their own fun, which is how kids grow good brains and strong bodies.  That is when they learn to love books, friendships, board and card games, sports, and outdoors.  Soon the no-TV/computer rule becomes easier to enforce.

Play is the work of childhood.  It is now harder and harder to protect your childrens’ play from the onslaught of advertising, junk food, and electronics.  But this is part of the hard work of parenting, so your kids can be kids again.