Making Healthy Choices About Nutrition

Taken from the November/December 2016 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

We are surrounded by ads that push fast foods, high calorie foods, and large portions — and the realities of peoples’ lives often work against eating as well as we should.

Many women want to make changes and have a positive impact on their health — but don’t know where to begin. Personal and political actions are both important, especially since we have to look at these issues over a generation or so, recognizing that there are no short-term solutions, only steps in the right direction. As a pediatrician, I have been working with families for over 35 years to improve children’s nutrition, which also means improving the whole family’s eating patterns, and fight the obesity epidemic, which is shortening our children’s predicted lifespans.

One place I often start helping families is with prenatal nutrition, since most parents are really eager to do what is best for their baby. The U.S. has an absurdly high maternal mortality rate (which includes death during pregnancy) and there are good data to show that healthy nutrition improves pregnancy outcomes for mother and infant. Data also indicate that, if a baby is exposed to a variety of foods through the maternal diet and breast-feeding, the baby is more likely to accept a variety of flavors as a toddler and child. So, keep that broccoli coming!

Pediatric studies also tell us that parents and caregivers should strive to make eating and all foodstuffs as neutral as possible. No promising dessert only if a child eats his vegetables; no encouraging “just one more bite” when the kiddie has indicated she’s finished; no making faces at your own vegetables, etc. Kids mimic (oh, so well) what they see us doing! They are also very aware — more than we give them credit for — so it will come back to bite you if you don't model health nutrition habits. I had family where the parents hid sodas in the car trunk, so the parents could sneak out and get their sugar fix. It only makes that food seem more desirable to children.

Decide to make better nutrition a priority in your life. That means in your own diet, as well as what you feed your kids and other family members (like your aging parents). It means what you argue should be provided at your kids’ schools, what snacks you allow grandparents and daycare providers to give your the kids when you’re not there. One way to start doing this promoted by the well-known food writer Mark Bittman, is to only eat “real food.” This seems obvious, but much of what is sold as food is just a mash of chemicals patched together and wrapped. If you can’t pronounce the first three ingredients on the label, skip it. Try buying local produce and other groceries; local food is fresher, tastes better, and creates less pollution to bring to market.

Making better nutrition a priority means making changes for the long-term. I encourage my patients and their parents not to vow to radically improve the way they eat. Goals like this tend not to stick. Instead, take small steps, make tiny — but realistic — commitments. If your family eats out often, commit to dining at home one more per week. Substitute baking for frying once a week. If you eat Pop Tarts or granola bars for breakfast, try a home-made fruit smoothie or whole grain toast sometimes. These small things are doable and you can stick to them; then you can keep making small changes as they start to feel “normal” to you and your family.

In the sphere of political action, consider advocating for changes that can make these personal actions easier for us. Work to support a local tax on sugar-added beverages, as we have just done in Philadelphia. Meet with your local School Board to pass regulations limiting what kinds of foods can be sold in middle and high school vending machines; what foods can be offered in school lunches; what foods will be approved for sale at fund raisers (I grit my teeth when schools sell giant-sized candy bars to raise money, often for athletic programs!). Fight for better federal policies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which currently subsidizes the growers of corn for corn syrup, which is used in high sugar snack foods.

Remember that the agribusiness industry is working against a lot of these choices we want to make. They want to continue being paid to grow corn, sell full-fat dairy products to schools, and so on. Don’t get discouraged, there is always the next day to make changes!

Barbara Gold, MD, FAAP, is a recently retired pediatrician. She is the Vice Chair of the board of The Food Trust, a non-profit working to assure access to affordable, nutritious food for all. She has spent the last 40 years trying to combine good pediatrics and good nutrition.