Messages fill the media everyday warning parents of the dangers of high added sugar intake and low intake of fruits and vegetables. Dangers like increased risk of diseases including but not limited to Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and mood disorders. The link between nutrition and brain health has gained so much attention that in the past decade fields of study termed nutritional pharmacology and nutritional psychiatry have filled with researchers devoted to unlocking the medicinal potential of diet and lifestyle on cognitive disorders.
“Lifestyle as medicine has the potential to prevent up to 80% of chronic disease; no other medicine can match that. In addition, it is potentially inexpensive and even cost-saving; free of all but good side effects; safe and appropriate for children and octogenarians alike. It is, quite simply, the best medicine we’ve got.”
-David Katz, MD, MPH, American College of Lifestyle Medicine President, Yale University Prevention Research Center
Food is one of the most powerful keys that each of us has access to every single day, multiple times a day. Every food decision we make has the power to be either medicinal and provide our bodies with healing tools or harmful and contribute to our, and our children’s, risk of disease and illness.
To decrease these risks, the World Health Organization recommends less than 10% of daily calories (for both children and adults) come from added sugars. Yet, the most recent report from the CDC indicates that children eat an average of 16% of their daily calories from added sugar.
Why the discrepancy? I think it is because parents are overwhelmed (and not just with nutrition), confused by mixed messages, lacking in basic culinary and kitchen organization skills, faced with feeding aversions, and overall left feeling like the whole issue of making better lifestyle choices is just too daunting to tackle at five o’clock each night after work.
But making lifestyle change is miserable, isn’t it? No, it isn’t. At least it doesn’t have to be, and I can prove it.
A producer from NBC Nightly News called me last summer and asked if I would be willing to show them what it looks like when a family works with a nutritionist, specifically in this case, to reduce sugar. They wanted a behind the scenes look at how this type of guidance really works. I agreed.
I hung up with the producer and called Deirdre, a mother I had met nearly two years earlier through a referral from PrairieCare, to see if she would be interested in joining me on this endeavor. Would she be interested in not only working with me but having her efforts and ability to implement my recommendations broadcast to a national audience? She agreed.
Initially, NBC had requested that I have Deirdre completely eliminate all added sugar from her kids’ diet. I said that wasn’t in her or her family’s best interest. If they wanted to see what working with a (good) nutritionist is really like, I needed to stay true to teaching her my family-based approach to lifestyle change. That meant the parents were going to be the one making the initial changes. They agreed.
Deirdre and I met that Sunday to begin the journey of reducing her added sugar intake to less than 10% of daily calories (for her, this equated to about 40 grams or 10 teaspoons of added sugar).
Added sugars mean all packaged and canned foods/beverages that include the following on their ingredients label: sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, molasses, date puree, brown sugar, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, sucrose, fructose (a good rule of thumb is any word ending in ‘ose’). Naturally occurring sugars in plain dairy products, whole grains, and produce do not need to be included.
The focus of our conversations, as Deirdre was learning, was to always focus on what to add vs. what to restrict. Focus first on how to get an extra serving of vegetables on the table – at each meal. This is how added sugars become naturally displaced. If bellies aren’t filled with fiber and protein, they’re too easily filled with sugar.
Deirdre candidly disclosed how she, like many parents, separated feeding her kids from feeding herself, typically eating after them to enjoy the perceived ‘peace and quiet’. We worked on mindfulness when it came to dinner prep and remembering that this was a time to nurture both herself and her family. Deirdre shared with NBC how for the first time in months, they sat down as a family that week for dinner. She shared stories of the laughter and bonding that resulted – immediately, that first night. It only lasted a few minutes, but it was there. Like kindling ready to ignite a larger fire.
Deirdre and I weren’t allowed to be at the table while the kids were interviewed to ensure they felt open to talk, but we could listen from the other room. Deirdre had the experience of hearing one of her sons tell NBC how he appreciated that his mom cared about their health and that she took back making the decisions about what they should eat – mom provided the structure. NBC replied that surely he must miss unlimited access to his favorite high sugar treats, to which he replied, “sometimes, but I know when I’m older I’ll be happy that she taught me this now”.
Another son, one more reserved and picky when it comes to food, shared that at that week’s soccer game he had the energy to play the whole game for the first time (which was good since they didn’t have any subs!). Deirdre listened and witnessed her teenager drawing the connections between what he ate and how he felt and performed.
NBC asked if they were happy that their mom was making these changes. They all agreed.
There are two take-aways from our story. One, Deirdre is the one that made the changes. As the caregiver, she embraced her responsibility to decide WHAT and WHEN the kids eat and she trusted that they would decide IF and HOW MUCH. Two, change can be more comfortable than we think.
“I can be a super MODEL! I will model the behavior that I want from my kids.”
Regardless of age, caregiver modeling of healthy behaviors benefits kids.
- A fundamental aspect of family-based approaches to nutrition and lifestyle changes is parent/caregiver modeling. Modeling provides key social support to all members of the family embarking on new behaviors. Modeling also influences how children learn and develop.
- One of the strongest predictors for how active your children will be is how active you are. How prepared they are to make better food choices and know basic food preparation skills is influenced by the strength of your planning and cooking skills. There will of course be other influences – especially as children age and reach adolescence – but don’t underestimate your influence.
- And it is okay that some days will be better than others! Be gentle and patient with yourself as you learn and adjust to making changes. Patterns (even the bad ones) stick with us because they are comfortable and what we know. You have so much to juggle as a parent; remember to embrace and celebrate the small changes.
- Remember to put your oxygen mask on first! What is right for you is right for your children. Your self-care is not only essential to your health but ultimately to the health of your family. Your self-care is needed to remain strong in order to care for them. You prioritizing your own self-care models to your children the importance of them learning to prioritize their own self-care.
Modeling allows your children to see, first hand through you and your interactions with them, the powerful benefits of sleep, eating well, being active and managing stress. What a gift to give them.
Recommended additional reading can be found at: https://ellynsatterinstitute.org/
Teri Rose, MS, LN is founder of Minneapolis-based Perfectly Produce Weight Loss and Nutrition Services and serves as the nutrition consultant to PrairieCare.