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Complementary Medicine

Good Food, the Key to Healthy Children... It's Easier Than You Think

Children today are not as healthy as they were just 20 years ago. The decreasing nutritional value of food, coupled with its increased consumption, is creating serious health problems in our children.

Not surprisingly, the Surgeon General reports that 70% of disease in the United States is diet-related.

The good news is that the solution is contained within the cause - food. By reducing the consumption of unhealthy food, and bringing food of high nutritional value back into the diets of children, we can turn this situation around.

The Role of Parents

As parents, many of us have allowed our children to fall into unhealthy eating habits. Many parents do not stop to consider the caloric or fat intake of their children's meals.

For example, the recommended caloric intake for a child is about 1,500 calories per day, with an allowance of only 17 grams of fat from less-than-desirable sources. However, a typical child's restaurant meal consisting of a cheeseburger, fries, pop and a sundae has 1,700 calories and 58 grams of saturated-plus-trans fat. This single meal contains three days worth of harmful, artery-clogging fat!

Tips for Change

Changing the eating habits of our children requires substituting better food. It is important to consider the type and amount of foods consumed by a child.

Find Food Substitutions - To improve a child's eating habits requires creativity in finding healthier "taste-alikes" and other ways to get your children to make better food choices.

Visit Your Health Food Store – Health food stores offer a wide variety of foods that children eat every day, so it is not difficult to create a healthy menu.

Consult the Food Pyramid - The Whole Foods Pyramid is based on the concept that foods should be eaten in an unadulterated, unprocessed form for maximum nutritional benefit. Listed below are some easy changes recommended by the food pyramid.

Vegetarian Teenagers' Special Needs

A popular trend among teenagers is to choose a vegetarian diet. The American Cancer Society has recently issued guidelines that people should "choose most of the foods they eat from plant sources," so a vegetable-based diet is a very healthy selection as long as adequate protein, vitamins and minerals are integrated into the diet. Listed below are some vitamins and minerals to make sure are adequately represented in your teenager's diet.

Vitamin B12 - Receiving adequate protein without meat consumption is easily accomplished. Good sources of vegetable protein include beans, seeds, soy foods, nuts and peanut or almond butter. Check your teen's hair and nails. If they continue to grow, then he or she is getting enough protein. Also, Vitamin B12 is bound to protein in meat, so it should be supplemented in a vegetarian diet. B12 is essential for adequate digestion of foods, promotes normal growth and development of nerve cells and prevents anemia.

Iron and Vitamin C - Teens have high-energy demands as a result of increased growth during these years. Iron is necessary for energy production, and is also important in the formation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. High amounts of iron can be found in apricots, raisins, spinach, beans, breads and cereals. The iron in these foods will be better absorbed when combined with foods containing Vitamin C such as citrus fruits and juices, broccoli and tomatoes.

Calcium and Vitamin D - Adequate levels of calcium are also extremely important during the teen years because it is vital for bone development, muscular growth and delivering energy to the body. Green vegetables, calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice, and tofu processed with calcium sulfate are good sources. To ensure that the calcium is absorbed, include Vitamin D from supplements, fortified juices or milk, and 20 to 30 minutes of exposure to sunlight per day

Benefits of Vitamin Supplements

Our food sources have changed dramatically over the past 50 years. The use of pesticides and fertilization has depleted the soil of basic vitamins and minerals. The lack of essential nutrients in our diet has been linked to the growing incidence of chronic disease. Therefore, it is a good idea to take supplements. A daily multivitamin without artificial or synthetic products is recommended. Other benefits of vitamin supplements are listed below:

Protection From Disease - Ongoing research has demonstrated that some childhood ailments can be eased through use of nutritional supplements.

Ease Allergy Symptoms - Many ailments have a food-related cause. Often allergies stem from food sensitivity. Symptoms from ailments and allergies can be eased through adding nutritional supplements into the diet. For example, eczema and allergy symptoms are eased with a nondairy diet and the inclusion of fish oils.

Improve Discomfort - Muscle cramps and trouble sleeping can be improved by adding a calcium supplement to the diet because it relaxes muscles and nerves.

Improve Symptoms of Hyperactivity - Nutritional supplements are showing positive results in the treatment of hyperactivity (ADD, ADHD, LD, HA, LDHA), now very common in children. Studies in Canada, the United States, Britain and South Africa report that 68% of the hyperactive children given Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) showed improvement in their behavior. Other findings report that 67% of hyperactive children had abnormal thirst, a symptom of an essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency. Zinc deficiencies are also common among hyperactive children. A simple supplement can eliminate these deficiencies. Also, calcium magnesium calms the nervous system.

A Healthy Future

As parents we must take responsibility for providing proper nutrition for our children. Start slowly. Improve dinners, add water and cut out a few extras. In time, your children will adjust to the changes and even like them. Your children will feel better. And you will feel better knowing that you are giving them the tools to live a healthier life.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for information only. It is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition. Please refer to a nutritionist or other health professional to determine an appropriate diet and nutritional needs.

Stephanie Richards, RD, MPA is a registered dietitian and holistic health coach . Ms. Richards provides nutritional counseling to individuals and groups in the northeast Ohio area.

This article was originally published in Balanced Living Magazine, September - October 2004, and used with permission.

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Last Reviewed: Aug 18, 2008

Tanya I Edwards, MD, MEd Tanya I Edwards, MD, MEd
Formerly, Associate Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University