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The junk food diet controversy continues

December 16, 2010

The challenge continues. After being bombarded by friends and family about the apparent success of the “convenience store diet” (TT, Dec. 3), we found a study from Norway that concluded children who consume healthy foods are significantly more likely to be overweight than those who eat junk foods.

Headlines like this suggest that healthy food is making children fat and that junk food doesn’t cause weight gain. The study details didn’t show this, but they did highlight a finding that overweight children are not just junk food addicts; they eat healthy foods too. Meanwhile, children of normal weight enjoyed processed foods, as their diets included sweets, cakes, burgers, sausages and so on. This is seemingly contrary to the general belief that “fat” children don’t eat healthily and that normal-weight children don’t overdo the junk.

So why were the apparently healthy eaters overweight? Again, we find ourselves looking at the basic equation of calorie consumption versus expenditure. In fact, the study specifically noted that the overweight children ate more frequently and were less active than the normal-weight participants.

The key message here is portion control, even when eating healthy foods. We should also remember that while excess weight is blamed for the growing epidemic levels of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, weight itself is only part of the overall health picture. The vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables, not to mention the unsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, seeds and plant oils, are very important for overall health as well as a child’s physical and mental development.

Take fats. Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish such as salmon and sardines contribute to proper development and function of the brain and nervous system. On the other hand, trans fats found in many processed foods adversely affect both systems and as such can impede learning in children. Yet 1 gram of fish oil has the same calorie content as 1 gram of trans fat.

As processed foods are relatively nutrient deficient, our advice is to monitor the amount of junk food in your child’s diet. If it needs reducing, then do it gradually by replacing processed foods with healthier versions. If appetite is excessive and needs controlling, keep snacking to a minimum. Serve 80 percent of the usual volume of food at mealtimes. Have your child sit down at the table to eat and ensure that he or she chews food thoroughly. Encourage conversation around the table so the meal isn’t gulped down in seconds, and try the 20-minute rule: If on finishing their meal they say they are still hungry, make them wait 20 minutes before offering seconds. Chances are that they will become absorbed in something else and forget all about eating more.

If they are accustomed to desserts, reduce the quantity and frequency of these, and try to serve them after the 20 minutes, when a smaller portion should satisfy.

Children have a right to enjoy their food. Just remember that they, and you, can have too much of a good thing.

Sources: Norwegian Institute of Public Health (www.fhi.no), Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com), European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (www.nature.com/ejcn), Franklin Institute (www.fi.edu).

Julie Godfrey is a nutritional therapy practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). For more information, see www.foreverhealthyco.com.

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