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Feeding Frenzy

You wouldn’t dream of letting your child run out into a busy street, would you? Yet, did you know that allowing a steady diet of cheese pizza, chicken nuggets, chocolate chip cookies and even some so-called packaged “health foods” is about as reckless?

As parents, we are programmed to feed our kids — a full tummy is a happy tummy (and happy mommy), right? But, how many of us are letting them eat whatever (and giving into to the drive-thru) rather than cooking with a plan and some serious label reflection? Let’s face it, convenience trumps thoughtfulness. As a result, the foods children chow down on daily are responsible for a growing epidemic of health problems (not to mention fatness), according to nutrition experts.

Couple quick-fix meals with either too much information (or not enough) about nutrition and you’ve got a new kind of feeding frenzy in the modern family.

“The problem is there’s just so much out there that people come in and say ‘I don’t know what to believe,’” laments Dee Rollins, Ph.D., a registered dietitian with Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine. Americans are dangling somewhere in between the realization that additives are bad for your health and the acceptance that with this stuff dominating our diets, we’re going to have to make some major changes if we want our kids to grow up eating healthy foods.

Research is still evolving and uncovering the specific additives that are wreaking havoc on our nutrition. Consider that only a few years ago, trans fats were completely off the public radar — yet today, they’re being banned and even fast-food mammoths like McDonald’s are finally coming up with alternatives. It’s not simply that old-fashioned cooking is always better; it’s that ingredients that once seemed like something we could “get away with” have become so ubiquitous in our food supply that we’re just now feeling the impact from all these chemical additives.

Sick food, sick kids
Scientists are linking ingredients in the foods we eat with such serious conditions as ADD and ADHD, obesity, diabetes and even cancer. The official word is still out on other commonly cited ties, but other unnatural food substances are suspected of causing hives, eczema, asthma and even headaches and ear infections. It’s easy to assume that healthy, active, average-weight children are skipping blithely past these problems — but in fact, many of these issues are chronic conditions that won’t manifest until later on in kids’ lives. Cautions Dr. Mary Ann Block, D.O., medical director of the Block Center in Hurst and author of No More ADHD, “We don’t know how bad it’s going to be until a lot of people are consuming them.”

The trouble is some of the worst diet offenders are not obvious or even known. While you may be on the lookout for trans fats and preservatives, did you know that high fructose corn syrup, artificial colorings, common sweeteners (innocuously mentioned at the bottom of the labels on tempting “sugar free” products) also round out the stay-away-from list? Still, others are even more shocking, such as those ingredients that are fine in moderation but tend to be packed too densely in common processed foods, such as sodium and sugar.

With man-engineered additives lurking in almost everything we eat, figuring out what’s safe and what to eliminate can be confusing. Parents instinctively know that today’s food isn’t cutting the mustard, but how to fix it is another matter. “I went into this not knowing what I was doing wrong,” confesses Vicki Villani, a McKinney mother of three who recently set out to get her family on a healthier eating track. “I don’t keep cookies in the house, and I don’t keep chips in the house, so why is it my kid is ballooning out like he is?”

DeeDee Lynn, another Dallas area mom, battles with the same unseen enemies and opted to go cold turkey with her family’s diet. “I like to do as much homemade as possible because you can control the ingredients and know what’s in it,” Lynn explains. But even this homemaker learned that made-by-mom doesn’t necessarily mean healthful; it still takes careful planning and evaluation of ingredients. “Probably 90 percent of our groceries are organic, just because I think that so much of the health issues that people are having have something to do with our diet. It just has to,” she asserts.

Like many on-the-go families, Villani isn’t home enough to make her family’s meals. “We eat out a lot because of our lifestyle,” she explains, “We’ve got three kids who are all active in different sports and activities. We are never at home in the evenings. So we’ve had to make sure we understand what healthy and non-healthy is in either the quick food we pick up at the grocery store to prepare at home or when we go out to a restaurant.”

How kids react to unnatural ingredients has a lot to do with how their bodies process them. Block says it’s important to look first at biochemistry, meaning how our bodies metabolize what we eat. “Our body is meant to metabolize real foods, not artificial foods,” she explains. The body needs certain vitamins and minerals to do this properly, and if we throw in things like artificial dyes and flavorings, our body doesn’t know how to deal with that.

Block says processed foods tend to affect the immune and nervous systems, so focus, concentration and behavior problems are all likely side effects of a nutrition deficiency. Poor diets can affect people differently, she warns. “One person might get an upset stomach; another might get fidgety.” Both problems, though, can lead to inattention in the classroom are result in an inappropriate diagnosis of ADD or ADHD.

By making mindful food choices, both moms see the benefits in kids who are healthier from the inside out. Villani’s renewed focus on healthy eating has not only helped her 9-year-old son shed 20 extra pounds but also given him enhanced energy and social confidence — an edge in school and life.

Anything but sweet
So what are some of the things Villani and Lynn have discovered? One of the toughest obstacles to overcome in the modern diet: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Produced often from genetically modified corn (and treated with an enzyme that converts glucose to fructose which results in a sweeter and more appealing product), the thick liquid has infiltrated the food scene with a wild abandon, appearing in everything from soft drinks to salad dressings and dehydrated, packaged snacks to ketchup (and even in many so-called “health foods” such as low-fat yogurt). Its structure makes it behave differently in the body than old-fashioned cane or beet sugar, which some experts believe can cause deleterious metabolic effects, including, including glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia and liver dysfunction.

Dr. Kendall Brown, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Digestive Health Associates in Dallas, recommends people avoid high fructose foods, which can leave you feeling unsatisfied, in general, because they tend to cause overeating. “They have a high glycemic index and can give patients almost a rebound hunger about an hour after the meal,” he explains.

Studies (though there has been no comprehensive research done) also show that HFCS can raise triglyceride levels, which may increase the risk of heart disease. The question remains just how much more dangerous high fructose corn syrup is than other sugars. What is clear, however, is that the sugar load it packs is anything but sweet to our children’s health. Empty calories are driving epidemic proportions of children with diabetes and obesity.

“High fructose corn syrup is linked to extra calories,” explains Lara Hassan, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at The Cooper Clinic in Dallas. “Children are consuming too many sugary beverages. Parents should eliminate sodas and fruit drinks because they are high in calories and contain no nutritional value.”

Some nutritionists are pointing to a more insidious concern: high fructose corn syrup may actually increase the body’s desire for more sugar. “We all know that the more we eat, the more we want,” Rollins confirms. “Maybe it’s that addiction center that just clicks in. HFCS may indeed tell us that we’re hungry for more sweet stuff.”

The skinny on fat
New York City made headlines with its recent move to ban trans fat from food served in restaurants and parents are starting to take notice too, especially since the FDA ordered its contents to be listed on food labels just last year. Trans fat, which can be found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils, is created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil — a process called hydrogenation (which gives it a longer shelf life and flavor stability). The downside is that trans fat, saturated fat and dietary cholesterol raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad cholesterol" levels, which increases the risk of coronary heart disease — yes, even in active kids of normal weight. Foods that are high in saturated fats can also affect insulin sensitivity more than other foods, says Brown.

“Children who regularly consume fried foods (chicken nuggets, French fries, donuts) and certain baked goods may be getting too much trans fats,” Hassan warns. “Parents should read the Nutrition Facts label to choose products with 0 trans fats. For fast food choices, log on to the restaurant’s Web site and choose those foods with minimal trans fats and saturated fats. Go for the grilled chicken sandwich or limit chicken nuggets to four pieces. Choose fruit (now available at many fast food restaurants) instead of French fries.”

Chemical soup
Lining up behind sugar and trans fats is the chemical soup of today’s convenience foods: artificial colorings, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives. While research on these additives is not comprehensive, evidence that they do indeed affect our children’s health continues to mount from both nutritionists and families. Block notes that artificial ingredients, such as aspartame, have been associated with migraine headaches and even seizures.

The Feingold Program, a diet therapy developed to eliminate certain foods or additives thought to trigger particular symptoms, has been credited with clearing up learning, behavior and health problems for thousands of Americans.

According to one study conducted in 2002 and reported by Feingold, 80.6 percent of the 31 children who completed a 2-weeks trial of an elimination diet showed an improvement in behavior of at least 50% on two official rating scales. Rollins says parents who try it are hopeful. “I’m talking to mothers who have these little kids who are hyperactive who will actually do the no food coloring, no preservatives, and those mothers will swear that that works … they can tell the difference in their children.”

Lynn offers her own theory: “It’s artificial. It’s not real food. From the research I’ve done, your body doesn’t recognize it as food and … doesn’t necessarily know how to break it down and digest it and process it. The molecular structure is different from food, and so it confuses your body.”

Common preservatives such as BHA, BHT and TBHQ are made from petroleum (crude oil). They’re often not listed in ingredient lists or listed as "antioxidants" because they prevent the fats in foods from "oxidizing" or becoming rancid (spoiling). Recent research indicates that these preservatives may indeed cause cancer. Similar concerns have been cast on preservatives, including MSG, sodium benzoate, nitrites and sulfites, with less conclusive results.

Artificial colorings, another petroleum derivative, have their detractors, as well. Many wear such labels as "Yellow No. 5," "Red 40," "Blue #1" and so on. "FD&C" before the number indicates the product has been screened for "Food, Drug & Cosmetics" — but "D&C" colorings, often used in food products, are deemed safe for medicine (drugs) and cosmetics but not for food. Parents need to know what to look for on labels.

The safety of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, has been the focus of much scrutiny and controversy, but the issue is moot for kids, who shouldn’t be eating this sweet stuff in the first place. “Artificial sweeteners should be used in very small amounts — if at all — in children’s diets,” admonishes Hassan. That means parents, once again, need to check labels on so-called “sugar free” products, which are generally laced with some type of sweetener.

And what of “artificial flavorings”? Well … like the products themselves, the answer is murky because nobody knows what these flavorings really are. Manufacturers are not required to divulge the specific ingredients of “artificial flavorings” listed on their ingredient lists. An artificial flavoring may be composed of hundreds of separate chemicals, notes the Feingold Association, and there is no restriction on what a company can use to flavor food. For example, one source for imitation vanilla flavoring ("vanillin") is waste from paper mills. (In fact, some companies built factories next to the pulp mills to turn the undesirable byproduct into imitation flavoring.)

Getting back to real food
There’s a simple solution to the ingredient confusion: eat whole foods, both at home and dining out. While there was a time that whole foods were considered “special” or “health” foods, it’s getting easier than ever to find “real” food that hasn’t been over-processed. Mainstream manufacturers are finally offering healthy versions of items that give families the value, convenience and taste they want. Even the omnipresent boxed macaroni and cheese can be found in a healthier version at most standard grocery stores.

Selecting healthy foods doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Rollins has a great saying to simplify matters: “If God put it in the Garden of Eden, we’re good to go.” She explains that unprocessed foods make generally healthy choices.

For those who prefer not to cook everything from scratch, checking labels ensures a clean break from nasty additives. Villani attests: “I’m a typical mom. I like foods quick and I like foods easy. So I go to the 100-calorie snacks — but I still look at the labels because even though they’re 100-calorie, I want to be sure they’re not loaded down in fats.”

Some moms, like Lynn, avoid the whole problem by shopping at alternative stores. “I buy so little at the regular grocery store that I forget about it,” she laughs. “I get into this nice little Whole Foods cocoon because they don’t have anything with nitrates and nitrites and they don’t allow anything with hydrogenated oils.”

But isn’t all this more expensive? “You’re paying a little bit more — but you’re getting a lot more,” Hassan clarifies. For busy parents, she suggests prepared steamed vegetable bags, Lean Cuisines and the wide variety of packaged and prepared products available at chains like Whole Foods.

Making healthy choices when eating out is easier with a little advance preparation. Villani researches restaurants on the Internet before the family goes out. “I want to be informed before I walk in,” she explains. “I don’t want to get in there and then be faced with a menu and … a lot of them will have their little asterisk for what they consider healthy. I’m not going to take their word for it. I want to see how they’ve prepared it. I want to see what their saturated fat grams for that meal are.”

Such changes can be worth the effort in both the short and long term. Research from Feingold has shown that a diet lower in sucrose, artificial colors and flavorings, and preservatives helped lead to a 15.7% increase in academic performance among students at more than 800 New York public schools. Other studies indicate a decline in conduct and attention problems when sugars and other artificial ingredients are eliminated.

For any child with ADHD-type symptoms, Block recommends eliminating sugar and replacing it with protein (to keep the blood sugar stable), for immediate, marked improvement.

Behavior improvements and better concentration and focus can happen very quickly when adopting a whole foods diet. Other changes, such as weight loss, tend to happen more gradually.

The big picture
Getting started means setting expectations for the whole family. “Parents should be a good role model for their children,” Hassan advises. “In addition, parents should talk to their kids regularly about what is a healthy diet and help them distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods.” Villani agrees: “It’s a lifestyle change. It’s not just a weight issue; weight involves your health. I want to make sure he [my son] lives to a ripe old age, and I’ve got to make sure he learns how to make the right choices.”

It won’t be long before family noses will turn up at foods that taste different from healthy, whole varieties. Lynn notes that her kids definitely prefer the taste of the healthy versions of foods they are used to. “I hope that I’m programming their taste buds,” she says. “This is the good food, this is what you want to eat and not the other stuff.”

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. A purer diet overall means the occasional treat won’t send the whole family into the deep end. In other words, eat everything in moderation.

But Block cautions that parents need to reevaluate what moderation really is, rather than simply trying to cut back on the sweet stuff. “The body and brain need about one teaspoon of sugar to work properly,” she advises, adding that this one-teaspoon is provided naturally by the body breaking down the food you eat into natural sugars. But, considering many sodas contain 10 teaspoons of sugar (or more), “limiting” a child’s consumption of sweet drinks to one per week doesn’t seem to count as “moderation.”

Additionally, while it is important to be aware of and control a child’s diet, parents cannot discontinue the use of any one food or beverage and expect to grow healthy kids. That’s the message being delivered by many expert organizations, such as the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization: Exercise and eating go hand in hand. And, not just baseball practices/games once per week or leisurely trips to the park — we’re talking daily movement that gets their heart rates up.

Block suggests a nightly family walk to her patients. In the absence of P.E. and recess programs in schools, she says, parents need to find other sources for their child’s activity. In fact, regular cardiovascular exercise is a big part of Villani’s healthy new focus for her family. And Brown, referring to a 2003 recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that stated the importance of unstructured play at home, says children burn more calories “goofing off” than they do with organized sports, so letting them run around the yard after school is probably more beneficial than sitting down immediately to do homework or watch TV.

Rollins encourages families to look at the big picture. “I have a real hard time saying food is the [only] culprit,” she muses. Not only are kids missing out on regular workouts, they “aren’t getting eight hours of sleep, the stress level is off the chart even for a kid, they’re not eating (reasonable, palm-sized portions) and Mama isn’t cooking the best she can cook with her abilities and budget. We’re missing the big things and focusing on the little things,” says Rollins.

And, in a competitive environment like Dallas, where kids and parents strive to be the best, improving diet and exercise seems like a no-brainer. Not only will they be fit, they’ll do better in school and in life.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Ludrick.