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9 Foods Not to Give Your Kids

By Joe Wilkes

If you've followed the news on childhood obesity lately, you know that the state of affairs is pretty grim. Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past two decades and most signs point to the next generation being the first whose life expectancy will be shorter than their parents. Much of the blame for this has deservedly been laid at the feet of the producers and marketers of unhealthy food aimed at our youngest consumers. They've created an uphill battle for parents trying to compete with superheroes and cartoon animals for their children's palates and stomachs.

Since most kids have hummingbird metabolisms that adults can only envy, it's easy to often give them a free pass and let them eat whatever they want. But eventually those metabolisms slow down, and the pounds settle in. Also, as physical activity decreases, and processed-food intake increases, kids aren't burning calories the way their parents might have when they were their age. And even if the kids aren't getting fat, they are establishing eating habits that they will take into adulthood. As parents, you can help foster a love for healthy eating and exercise that will last your kids a lifetime, hopefully a long one!

I can remember family dinners with my brother and parents that could teach Hezbollah a thing or two about stand-offs. Eating is always a classic power struggle where kids try to finally locate their mom and dad's last nerve. There are a number of strategies you can use to mitigate this. Let your kids help with the selection and preparation of the food. If they picked out the veggies at the farmer's market and helped cook them, they might be less inclined to feed them to the family pet. Also, try to frame eating vegetables and healthy food as being its own reward. By offering dessert as a reward for finishing vegetables, you create a system where unhealthy food is a treat and healthy food sucks.

Someday, your children will realize that caped men in tights and sponges who live under the sea might not have their best interests at heart when it comes to food, but until then, here are some of the worst foods you can try to keep them away from, and some healthy replacement ideas. And for the overgrown children among you, the alternative snacks might even tempt you.

Note: The following recommendations are for school-aged children. Infants and toddlers have different specific nutritional needs, not addressed in this article.

  1. Chicken nuggets/tenders. These popular kids-menu items are little nuggets of compressed fat, sodium, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and in some form, chicken. Depending on the restaurant, chicken might not even be the first ingredient. Oftentimes, the nuggets or tenders are made of ground pieces of chicken meat and skin, pressed into a shape, flavored with HFCS and salt, and batter-fried in hydrogenated oil (the bad, trans-fatty stuff). Then, if that wasn't unhealthy enough, you dunk it in a HFCS- or mayonnaise-based sauce. With all the fat, salt, and sugar, it's easy to understand why they're tasty, but the nutritive value weighed against the huge amount of calories and fat consumed is incredibly lacking. Even healthier-sounding menu items like McDonald's Premium Breast Strips (5 pieces) pack 630 calories and 33 grams of fat, more than a Big Mac, and that's before you factor in the dipping sauce.

    Instead: If you're cooking at home, grill a chicken breast and cut it into dipping-size pieces either with a knife or, for extra fun, cookie cutters. Make a healthy dipping sauce, with HFCS-free ketchup, marinara sauce, mustard, or a yogurt-based dip. Let your kids help make the shapes or mix up the sauce. Try and go without breading, but if you must, try dipping the chicken breast in a beaten egg, and then rolling it in cornflake crumbs before you bake it. It'll be crunchy and delicious, but not as fatty.

  2. Sugary cereal. I can remember as a child, feeling horribly deprived when I would go to friends' houses for overnights and be treated in the morning to cereals with marshmallows that turned the milk fluorescent pink or blue. But now I can appreciate my mom and her unpopular brans and granolas. True, they didn't have any toy surprises in the box or any cartoon characters on the box, but they also didn't have the cups of sugar, grams of fat, and hundreds of empty calories that these Saturday morning staples are loaded with.

    Instead: Read the labels and try to find cereal that is low in sugar and high in fiber and whole grains. Remember, "wheat" is not the same as "whole wheat." Also, avoid cereals (including some granolas) which have hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, or chemical preservatives. Add raisins, sliced bananas, berries, or other seasonal fruit to the cereal for extra flavor and nutrition. Again, letting your child help design a healthy bowl of cereal from choices you provide will get you a little more buy-in at the breakfast table.

  3. Lunch meat and hot dogs. Kids love hot dogs, bologna, and other processed meats, but they are full of potentially carcinogenic nitrates and nitrites, sodium, saturated fat, and artificial colors and fillers. A study in Los Angeles found that kids who ate 12 hot dogs a month had nine times the risk of developing leukemia.1 And more health risks are being discovered all the time. Leaf through any research about kids' nutrition, and you're bound to read about the bane of the cafeteria—Oscar Mayer's Lunchables. These and similar prepackaged lunches are loaded with processed meats and crackers made with hydrogenated oils. These innocent-looking meals can boast fat counts of up to 38 grams. That's as much fat as a Burger King Whopper and over half the recommended daily allowance of fat for an adult.

    Instead: Get unprocessed meats, like lean turkey breast, chicken, tuna, or roast beef. Use whole wheat bread for sandwiches; or if your kid's dying for Lunchables, fill a small plastic container with whole-grain, low-fat crackers, lean, unprocessed meat, and low-fat cheese. This can be another great time to get out the cookie cutters to make healthy sandwiches more fun. For hot dogs, read labels carefully. Turkey dogs are usually a good bet, but some are pumped up with a fair amount of chemicals and extra fat to disguise their fowl origins. Look for low levels of fat, low sodium, and a list of ingredients that you recognize. There are some tasty veggie dogs on the market, although a good deal of trial and error may be involved for the choosy child.

  4. Juice and juice-flavored drinks. Juice, what could be wrong with juice? While 100% juice is a good source of vitamin C, it doesn't have the fiber of whole fruit, and provides calories mostly from sugar and carbohydrates. Too much juice can lead to obesity and tooth decay, among other problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests 4 to 6 ounces of juice per day for kids under six, and 8 to 12 ounces for older kids. Juice drinks that aren't 100% juice are usually laced with artificial colors and that old standby, high-fructose corn syrup, and should be avoided. Your best bet is to make your own juice from fresh, seasonal fruit. You won't have to worry about all the additives, and it's another way you can involve your kids in the cooking process. Let them design their own juice "cocktail." And if you were even considering soda, perhaps a refresher course from Steve Edwards' Nutrition 911 series is in order.

    Instead: Water is still the best thirst quencher. Explain the importance of good hydration to your kids, and try to set a good example yourself by carrying around a water bottle. Get them used to carrying a small bottle of water in their backpack or attached to their bike. If they're very water averse, try water with a splash of fruit juice in it. But just a splash. The idea is to get kids used to not having things be overly sweet, overly salty, or overly fatty. The other great beverage is milk. Filled with nutrients, calcium, and protein, growing kids need plenty of milk, though not so much fat. Choosing low-fat or skim milk will help ensure they get their milk without becoming a cow.

  5. French fries. High in calories, high in fat, and high in sodium—and unsurprisingly, the most popular "vegetable" among kids. They offer virtually none of the nutrients found in broccoli, carrots, spinach, or other veggies not found in a deep fryer. And the fat they're fried in is usually trans fat, the unhealthiest kind for the heart. To top it all off, studies are beginning to show cancer-causing properties from acrylamide, a toxic substance that is created when starchy foods like potatoes are heated to extreme temperatures. In some tests, the amount of acrylamide in French fries was 300 to 600 times higher than the amount the EPA allows in a glass of water.2

    Instead: Vegetables like baby carrots, celery sticks, or other crudités are great options, but if potatoes must be had, there are some options that don't begin with melting a brick of fat. A scooped-out potato skin with low-fat chili and a little cheese can give lots of fiber and vitamins, with even higher amounts if the chili has beans. You can also try making baked fries, using slices of potato with a light brushing of olive oil. Or, the classic baked potato could be a hit, with yogurt dip or cottage cheese instead of sour cream and butter.

  6. Chips. Potato chips, Cheetos, Doritos, etc. These are full of fat, oftentimes saturated, and way more sodium than any child or adult should eat. Some chips also have the acrylamide problem discussed under French fries. Also, watch out for innocent-seeming baked and low-fat chips that contain olestra or other fake fats and chemicals that could present health issues for kids.

    Instead: Kids gotta snack, and in fact, since their stomachs are smaller, they aren't usually able to go as long between meals as adults. Cut-up vegetables are the best thing if you want to get your crunch on, but air-popped popcorn and some baked chips are okay, too. You can control how much salt goes on the popcorn, or experiment with your child with other potential popcorn toppings like red pepper, Parmesan cheese, or dried herbs. Try making your own trail mix with your child. They might be more excited to eat their own personal blend, and you can avoid certain store-bought trail mixes, which sometimes contain ingredients like chocolate chips and marshmallows that are moving down the wrong trail for a healthy snack.

  7. Fruit leather. Many of these gelatinous snacks like roll-ups or fruit bites contain a trace amount of fruit but lots of sugar or HFCS and bright artificial colors. Don't be misled by all the products that include the word "fruit" on their box. Real fruit is in the produce section, not the candy aisle.

    Instead: If your child doesn't show interest in fruit in its natural state, there are some ways you can adulterate it without losing its nutritional value. Try filling ice-cube or popsicle trays with fruit juice or freezing grapes for a healthy frozen treat. Or buy unflavored gelatin and mix it with fruit juice and/or pieces of fruit to make gelatin treats without the added sugar and color (another good time for the cookie cutters!) Try serving some raisins, dried apricots, apples, peaches, or other fruits that might give you that chewy, leathery texture without the sugar.

  8. Doughnuts. These little deep-fried gobs of joy are favorites for kids and adults alike, but they are full of fat and trans-fatty acids, and of course, sugar. Toaster pastries, muffins, and cinnamon buns aren't much better. The worst thing about doughnuts, and these other pastries, aside from their nutritional content, is that they're often presented to children as acceptable breakfast choices. These delicious deadlies need to be categorized properly—as desserts, to be eaten very sparingly. And you can't have dessert for breakfast.

    Instead: Honestly, a slice of whole-wheat toast spread with sugar-free fruit spread or peanut butter isn't going to get as many fans as a chocolate-filled Krispy Kreme, but at some point, you have to stand firm. You be the cop that doesn't like doughnuts. Doughnuts—not for breakfast. Period.

  9. Pizza. In moderation, pizza can be a fairly decent choice. If you order the right toppings, you can get in most of your food groups. The problem comes with the processed meats like pepperoni and sausage, which add fat and nitrates/nitrites (see Lunch meat and hot dogs above); and the overabundance of cheese, which will also provide more calories and fat than a child needs.

    Instead: Try making your own pizza with your kids. Use premade whole wheat crusts, or whole wheat tortillas, English muffins, or bread as a base. Then brush on HFCS-free sauce, and set up a workstation with healthy ingredients, like diced chicken breast, sliced turkey dogs, and vegetables that your child can build his or her own pizza with. Then sprinkle on a little cheese, bake, and serve. If your child gets used to eating pizza like this, delivery pizzas may seem unbearably greasy after awhile. Click here to get more pizza tips from the newsletter archive.

For tips on eating out at fast food restaurants, check out this article. And make sure to read Steve Edwards' article, also in this newsletter, about how healthy eating and exercise can improve your child's grades and overall quality of life.

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Diet, Exercise, and Your Kid's Grades

By Steve Edwards

There's a lot more you can do for your kids' education than locking them in a bulletproof SUV and waiting in a smog-choked line of other SUVs to drop them at the steps of their school. Teaching proper eating habits and providing time for exercise will do more for your children's potential to excel than any other thing that you, as a parent, can do.

Unfortunately, you may not get support from your school in these matters. Lack of funding and programs such as the ill-named "No Child Left Behind" are making it more and more difficult for your kids to eat well and exercise properly at school, making your parenting decisions more vital than ever before.


A growing body needs to exercise to properly develop. There's no science to dispute this, yet schools have began to cut PE classes to minimal levels. This not only makes it harder for children to concentrate on classwork during the day, but is a leading cause in the childhood obesity epidemic that's sweeping the nation. "Over the last 25 years, caloric intake in toddlers and young kids has gone up three or four percent, but the level of physical activity has dropped nearly 20 percent to 25 percent," says Ken Reed, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Physical Education.

When I was in school, I had five recess periods and my memories are of swarms of kids charging all over our exercise fields. In a survey of parents, I found that most kids had three or less periods of PE these days. Plus, it's becoming increasingly rare to walk to school, something that provided me and most of my classmates hours of random muscle-building, calorie-burning activity five days per week.

While there are plenty of studies that show the connection between physical fitness and academic performance, it's still a challenge for school administrators who feel they must focus on academics. One researcher, Dr. John Ratey of Harvard, does brain research on physical fitness and calls physical activity "miracle growth for the brain." Despite this, it's still an uphill battle.

"The situation isn't good and it's getting worse," says Reed. "Physical activity levels have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years and we believe there's a direct link there to childhood obesity, as well as a dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol levels in children. It's primarily because of budget problems in schools. Also, the focus is on the educational assessment test that almost every state has due to No Child Left Behind and other factors. It's become the scorecard for administrators and teachers. The focus is on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Parents are also picking up on the state assessment scores as their scorecards on how their school's doing, so they put more pressure on schools to focus on those areas. Something's got to give, and it's usually PE, music, and art classes."


Then there's your child's diet to consider, which most likely won't be improved at school. According to statistics cited in Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, the worst-quality food goes to fast food restaurants, schools, and pets, in that order—a pretty scary thought when we consider that fast food restaurants and the school cafeteria make up a large percentage of what is forming the dietary pattern of our future generation.

It's easy to see the food/performance relationship with school kids. One example, Appleton Central Alternative High School in Appleton, Wisconsin, implemented a health food program in 1997 and saw a dramatic increase in student performance. Removing soda and candy machines and changing the cafeteria fare from the standard burgers, fries, etc. to salad, veggies, whole grain breads, fresh water, and healthy recipes, they saw grades go up, truancies go down, and disciplinary matters nearly vanish.

"I don't want to say better than ever, because it's always worked," said dean of students Greg Bretthauer recently, "but we've made minor revisions, based on experience, to improve it. We've incorporated flaxseed and focused on the omega content of foods. Made fresh water even more available. We have monthly fruit smoothie days, and have really worked to incorporate more education about eating away from school—trying to get students to follow through at home. We've found the diet does play a major role in increasing the ability to concentrate."

Adds teacher Mary Bruyette, "If you've been guzzling Mountain Dew and eating chips and you're flying all over the place, I don't think you're going to pick up a whole lot in class. Now I don't have to deal with daily discipline issues; that just isn't a factor here." While there's little doubt that better food would increase scholastic performance, there's also little chance it's going to happen on a wide scale anytime soon. "Our district is so strapped for cash that all they can look at is the bottom line," states Reed Bartlett, a teacher in the Riverside, California school district. So we get cheap, low-quality food and I don't see it changing anytime soon.

Weird science

It probably doesn't help that there's always a study out there for someone to fall back on and say things like "see, it doesn't matter what the kids eat." Case in point, the infamous "sugar study" that came to the conclusion that diet played little to no role in children's behavior.

Since I can say, with 100 percent certainty, that I've never had a client who wasn't affected by what they ate, I'm pretty sure not many people will disagree with me that food can alter the way you feel, which can alter your behavior. Yet, according to Steven Pliszka, MD and professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, "The biggest myth of all is that food has any connection to behavior." Say what?

And there's more where that came from. Wesley Burks, MD, professor and chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center states, "There haven't been any good scientific studies that show that there is an adverse effect on a child or adult's behavior chronically with the ingestion of foods." Perhaps not, but there's at least one school with thousands of real-world examples of diet playing a major role on behavior. In fact, the Appleton school tried an experiment where they served nothing but sugar-laced foods, caffeinated beverages, foods prepared with palm oils, etc., like "normal school kids get" and it had a significant effect. According to Bretthauer, "They ran around like hyped-up squirrels, felt sick, couldn't seem to concentrate. 'Pleeease,' they said. 'Don't have another one.'"

Scary science

Your kids are likely to live less time than you, which is one of the most alarming statistics I've seen recently, if not in my life. And that's the big picture stuff. On a smaller scale, we see studies on the negative effects of many things associated with the daily life of children.

Kids are drawn to bright colors, so marketers love to change the way food looks—just look at any chain restaurant's kid menu for examples. Yet eating foods with artificial colors and preservatives can cause negative behavior changes in children, according to a recent study published in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood. And that's just one. In a new review of two dozen scientific studies, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) contends that food dyes and certain foods can adversely affect children's behavior. CSPI, in a 32-page report titled "Diet, ADHD, and Behavior," charges that federal agencies, professional organizations, and the food industry ignore the growing evidence that diet affects behavior.

And with researchers like Mina Dulcan, MD, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago out there, it's hard to argue. She states, "The bottom line is that too much artificial food stuff isn't good for you, but I don't think you can believe that it's going to hurt your child's behavior or learning very much." Yet, in order for her statement to make sense, we would have to conclude that nothing you eat makes any difference in how your body responds. We know this to be false, making this statement—from a prominently credentialed professional—unequivocally nonsense.

It makes a lot more sense to listen to Reed, who states, "The country's decline in fitness levels, of adults and children, is negatively impacting productivity. This generation of kids is the first in 100 years to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Fitness levels, as well as health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure, are much worse trend-wise than we've ever seen with teenagers and young children. The economic cost just in terms of health care costs is going to be dramatic. Then, when you factor in the loss in productivity, it's really going to be dramatic for our country if it's not turned around." What can you do?

Plenty. This isn't a red tape or lawmaker's issue. While those are factors, you are still the primary influence on your child's health. For one, make sure they have plenty of opportunities to exercise. The upside to the decline of PE is the availability of affordable extracurricular sporting activities. While your doctor may tell you that you can exist on 30 minutes of exercise three times per week, that ain't going to cut if for a healthy child. They need exercise and movement, and a lot of it.

Get 'em out there. "Even with the diets kids are getting in schools, if the kids were more active, they'd be better off," says Reed. But you're also a major contributor to your child's diet, which begins at home. If your school won't provide healthy meals, go on strike and utilize a lunch box. And remember that schools, both public and private, respond to public demand. As do politicians. Just because school menus are dismal, they're cutting out PE, and losing their funding doesn't mean this is the way of the future. If enough people demand that it changes, then it will.

Also, lobby government agencies and politicians. We live in a democracy. Take advantage of your rights.

"The Department of Health and Human Services should withdraw its printed and Internet documents that largely dismiss the effect of food ingredients on behavior. For starters, the FDA should halt distribution of a pamphlet on food additives that it co-published with an industry group, the International Food Information Council," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. "It's high time that the government—as well as doctors—provided the public with accurate information that might help many children."

The solution is for each one of us to keep trying. One person can—and always has—made a difference. Because one turns into two, which turns into three, and pretty soon you have an army on your side demanding change. "If we could just get the soccer mom phenomenon working on physical education, we could rally parents and that would be a great advantage," says Reed.

Further reading in the Beachbody Newsletter Archive:

Appleton Central Alternative High School featured in the article "We Are What We Eat"

Interview with Ken Reed, PE4life's Director of Marketing and Director of the Center for the Advancement of Physical Education, in "Just Say No to Dodgeball (Curing Childhood Obesity), Part I"

Interview with Ken Reed continued in "Just Say No to Dodgeball, Part II"

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on a newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com. Check Steve Edwards' Mailbag for his responses to reader comments.

For Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope.

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