HealthLeader

An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Making the Right Changes

Getting kids to eat healthier just got easier

Persuading a child to eat vegetables may not be the easiest task in the world — especially with the popularity of processed snacks and sugary sweets. Luckily, Lisa Helfman and her husband, Jon Adler, have found a way to not only get their two sons to eat vegetables, they now prefer them.

The couple participated in a food cooperative last year and found themselves making different shopping decisions and feeding their family more natural, unprocessed foods. Before long, they noticed changes in their children.

Helfman recalls being shocked when her son declined cake at a friend’s birthday party last year. She then began to see how the co-op had impacted her family and was eager to share the experience with others.

After developing a plan and speaking to Shreela Sharma, PhD, RD, LD, assistant professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health, the pair’s plan to spread the food co-op concept was in motion and a program called Access, Continuity and Education (ACE) was born. The program launched in fall 2012 at Houston’s KIPP Explore Academy among second-and third-grade students and their families. Recently, the name of the program was changed to Brighter Bites.

Smarter eating

After constant exposure, a child begins to prefer healthier options. “It can take a child up to 12 times to know if they really like or dislike a fruit or vegetable,” says UTHealth dietetic intern Katherine Albus.

Sharma and Albus are among the team of UTHealth professionals who helped provide the nutrition education aspect of the Brighter Bites program.

Since making permanent changes in a child’s diet is no easy feat, each week the team equipped the families with food demonstrations and taste tests to help them.

It’s no secret. Diets high in processed meats, saturated fat and sugary drinks and low in whole grains and fruits and vegetables can lead to serious health problems, yet many kids indulge in these types of food daily.  Since children can establish lifelong habits during their youth, this makes the consumption of unhealthy food especially dangerous to their development.

Helfman says the program strives to help children develop healthier habits. Foods with high sugar content reduce energy levels and can alter a child’s ability to focus. Regularly eating these foods does not provide the necessary nutrients children need for adequate energy to engage in physical activity. Children without energy are less likely to engage in physical activity, which can lead to obesity.

Snacking done right

While it’s essential for kids to become accustomed to eating meals that are nutritious, healthy snacks are just as important. Granted, it’s much easier to buy an assortment of chips and cookies than it is to prepare well-balanced snacks, but the latter provides better benefits in the long run.

It’s important for each food group to be represented in meals and snacks throughout the day. While sugary snacks are often well marketed and desired by children, they are not a part of a well-balanced diet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently introduced MyPlate, the new food guidance icon designed to remind Americans to eat healthfully by providing a clear image of how meals should be structured on a plate.  MyPlate has replaced the food pyramid as the United States government’s official food group symbol.

Albus used MyPlate as a resource to help educate the families who participated in the program’s pilot. The MyPlate website allows parents to track and score their family’s eating and activity habits. There are also other online resources available to assist parents trying to get children to try new foods and adopt healthier diets. 

Permanent changes

What started as a family’s participation in a food co-op turned into a program that has already impacted others. Helfman says the achievement would not have been possible without the successful collaboration of several organizations.

“The program has been invaluable,” says Albus, who helped prepare recipe cards and other learning materials for the program. “Many of the families I worked with not only tried new foods, but added them to their regular diets.”