Nutrition: What You Should Be Eating (cont.)

Member: How bad are hotdogs? My kids seem to want them all the time.

Ward: I don't like hot dogs. But I let my kids eat them sometimes. Hot dogs are high in fat --saturated fat --and sodium, and they contain preservatives that are potential carcinogens. So my advice is to limit hot dogs or make sure that your child is consuming a source of vitamin C such as orange juice, strawberries, or kiwi fruit at the same meal. The vitamin C in these foods seems to help reduce the chances of the preservatives doing harm.

Member: Should kids limit their fat intake and to what extent?

Ward: This is a topic that is widely debated among health professionals. The general feeling is by age 2 we can begin to move kids toward the goal of a 30% fat or less diet. And by that I mean at age 2 we begin, so by age 5 they are on a diet that is healthy but relatively low in fat. Now having said that, I have to qualify the statement. Kids are growing at a tremendous pace and they need fat in foods for energy. So when parents severely restrict fat they run the risk of a child who doesn't grow properly. Since certain fatty foods (whole milk and cheese) provide a wide array of nutrients, then the child on the very low-fat eating plan runs a risk for many nutritional deficiencies. I think leaving out very low-nutrition foods such as candy, cookies, cake in the name of better health is not a bad idea, but restricting favorite foods too much in a child can come back to haunt you later on.

Member: Is it alarmist to call our country's current state of obesity an epidemic?

Ward: Absolutely not. Epidemic is right on the money. And the saddest part of all is that young children are heavier than they have ever been in recorded history. I think that we all have to work together to stop children from becoming overweight because overweight kids turn into overweight adults. And an overweight child has so many strikes against him from a health perspective, and a social perspective as well. We have to, as a country, look at the way we live. The way we live influences what we eat and how we eat and how much activity we get. And those changes can start at home.

Moderator: There is a lot of debate out there about the food pyramid and its emphasis on grains at the base. The "anti-carbs" contingent is growing. What's an average family to believe about the proper balance of their diet?

Ward: It's funny about the food pyramid. What most don't notice is the range of suggested serving sizes. When it comes to the grain group, it ranges from 6-11 servings per day. And six servings really is not that much. It amounts to one cup of cereal, two slices of bread, and a cup of pasta at dinner. And if people measured out what they ate, they would see that this [recommended amount] is very small! The idea of the food pyramid is a good one. We are so far off from the basic premise of the food guide pyramid, which is to eat a diet based on plant foods. I think a lot of people eat too many simple carbohydrates without eating enough fruits and vegetables, dairy foods, and protein foods. For example, a bagel can weigh between 4 and 5 ounces, the equivalent of 4-5 servings from the grain group of the pyramid. But what it really boils down to is calories when it comes to weight control. If you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. No matter what form those calories are in.

Member: I'd like to work some veggies into meals, rather than have them be side dishes, so my kids will be more likely to eat them. What, besides the obvious casseroles, can you suggest I try making?

Ward: Anytime you can put vegetables in soups and casseroles and dishes like meat loaf, you are winning the covert battle with your child. You can try offering vegetable juice instead of fruit juice. I always serve vegetables with a dip or a sauce on them. And I am prepared to give my kids a little more fat in the form of a dip or sauce so at least they get the vegetables in. I also give them peanut butter or hummus with vegetables, too. Don't forget about baked or mashed potatoes as a vegetable. That's OK, too. You can offer them vegetables in different forms. You can puree carrots, for instance, or puree a veggie and add it to a soup without the child even knowing it.

Moderator: We sprinkle cinnamon on sweet potatoes. Works for our daughter.

Ward: I think some parents don't think about potatoes as being a vegetable. Some have the idea they are just starchy and served in the place of bread or pasta, but they do double duty in the sense that they provide carbohydrate but are also a vegetable. Sweet potatoes are an excellent substitute for the white potato. Try roasting vegetables, which brings out the sweetness, and just makes it different for a child. Kids tend to reject foods over and over before they accept them. Try to give them vegetables in their "natural" state over and over. One day they will pick them up and eat them. And that's one hurdle you'll be over.

Member: How much juice should my preschooler be drinking each day? She really loves it but I'm afraid it's affecting her appetite.

Ward: Juice should be limited to 4-6 ounces per day and should always be 100% fruit juice. I prefer juices with something added to them, like calcium. Vitamin C is also added to juices. You are definitely going to have to give your child a "juice allowance," but you can stretch it by mixing it with club soda or seltzer water. If a child is truly thirsty, she should be drinking water.

Moderator: Are those added nutrients you've mentioned, in juices and cereal, as easily absorbed and utilized by our bodies as nutrients found naturally in foods?

Ward: The calcium that's used in most orange juices these days in incredibly well absorbed. I would say I feel just as good about getting calcium from orange juice as I would about getting it from a dairy food. Vitamin C is typically well absorbed as well even when it's added.

Member: My children are 9 and 4 1/2. How do I get these picky eaters to eat healthy? My husband and I eat very low-fat and my daughter won't even try the food I cook.