Kids eat the darnedest things

Wednesday, October 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

When children grab a bite, it could be chips, pizza or candy. But what about the 40 daily nutrients they need?

By Leslie Garcia / The Dallas Morning News

Experience life through a child's eyes: The beauty of a sunset. The magic of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The wonder of pepperoni pizza, of Lunchables, of drinks more colorful than crayons and about as nutritious.

Yes, it's a cheeseburger-and-fries, sugary-sweet cereal world out there. And kids are smelling, seeing and tasting it every day.

"We've had battles over sodas," acknowledges Laurie Sullivan, who has three sons. "I don't let them drink it because of the high sugar content and the expense. You have a bunch of boys and they drink a couple of sips and it's gone."

Mrs. Sullivan is right to limit sugary drinks, says Carolyn Bednar, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at Texas Woman's University. Those, plus high-calorie, low-on-the-nutrition-ladder foods add nothing redeeming to children's diets.

"The temptation for snacks is probably the biggest problem," Dr. Bednar says. "They don't add nutrients at all, just calories."

Sometimes even kids who like vegetables, like 11-year-old Ana Villareal, get a little chip-happy. So her dad, Ray, tells her to stop.

"We don't want her loaded up with junk," Mr. Villareal says. "When we go to the cafeteria, we make sure she gets her share of pasta, salads, corn."

Often, for kids, life is one big smorgasbord. Dr. Bednar says such choices can play havoc with kids' diets. Every time they turn on the television, they see another commercial for fast food, or colorful cereal, or a quick-fix snack. At school, the lunch line offers something for every taste bud.

"A lot of times, there are nutritious choices [with school lunches] but kids don't make them," Dr. Bednar says. "I see lunch lines where nobody takes an apple, especially at junior-high and high-school level. I've been in restaurants where I've seen mothers feeding little babies french fries, and it was appalling."

Eating habits begin at a young age – as far back, to a degree, as when the child was riding in the cart at the grocery store, says Gail Frank of California State University at Long Beach.

"They point to the food on the aisle, and Mom or Dad caters to their choice of cereal," says Dr. Frank, professor of nutrition in the university's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Or, she says, parents let children have total control over what's on the plate. Big mistake.

"Once the taste buds are set, the kids know they can demand what they want," she says. "When they have pocket money and are making decisions, they're going to either make good choices or start putting themselves into high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt intake."

Parents can help by setting a good example, says Joyce Barnett, registered and licensed dietitian and assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

"There shouldn't be any foods that are totally forbidden. If you have those, they become desirable," she says.

When kids do fill up on empty calories, there's often not room for the more nutritious foods, Dr. Bednar says.

"Youth today may not understand a very important aspect: Their body has about 40 nutrients that are needed on a daily basis to be healthy."

As children become teen-agers, boys tend to fare better nutritionally than girls simply because they eat more, Mrs. Barnett says. Girls, on the other hand, "tend to get into cutting out foods," in an attempt to lose weight, she says.

The foods children don't eat are as scary as those they do. Some registered dietitians cite calcium and fiber as lacking in children's diets. Dr. Bednar's major concern is the small number of nutrition-rich fruits and vegetables children consume.

"The problem is that if children didn't have fruits and vegetables when they were growing up, they probably won't now," she says. "There aren't that many fruits and vegetables at fast-food restaurants."

Which isn't to say that every single morsel that enters a kid's mouth has to be a nutritional treasure chest.

"I think people get confused by nutritional messages," Dr. Bednar says. "They think it's an all-or-nothing thing. They think you have to eat all good things and none of those fried or fatty. You just have to be balanced out. And exercise, too."

Bad eating habits and little exercise can, obviously, lead to obesity. According to Newsweek magazine, 6million American children are so fat that their health is endangered. More than ever, they are contracting diabetes.

"That could be linked in later years to hypertension, heart disease," Dr. Bednar says. "That's why we see adults needing triple bypass surgery. It doesn't just happen in a couple of years. It's a buildup over a lifetime."

Mrs. Sullivan doesn't keep many chip choices around her house. When he's hungry, 12-year-old Jack might make himself a chicken and bacon sandwich. Michael, 11, likes barbecue potato chips, but also will eat bologna-and-jalapeno sandwiches.

During the summer, she says, her sons snack on grapes and watermelon. Jack, inciting the gross-out factor among his friends, often chooses cans of carrots or baked beans for an afternoon treat.

But, some days, he and his brothers, like many children, don't get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables. They'll eat lettuce, but usually iceberg instead of the dark green varieties, Mrs. Sullivan says. For dinner, they prefer pizza and quick-fix meals like tacos and sloppy Joes.

"I used to experiment, but they never eat anything," she says.

Given their penchant for kids-type foods, she does prepare one dish which, inexplicably, they both love: Eye of round with bearnaise sauce.