Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Healthier Kids With Frosted Flakes. Balancing Sugar And BMI.

Tony the Tiger of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes fame

Ban Aunt Jemima? That’s just fine. Her image is not politically correct (and I’ve always preferred homemade pancakes and real maple syrup anyway). Joe Camel, as cigarette promoter, I am glad became extinct. But must we bury Betty Crocker before her time, just because her baked goods are high sugar? And Tony the Tiger, who I grew up believing was GREAAAAT, in spite of the sugar coating on his Frosted Flakes? And Toucan Sam of Fruit Loop fame? Must we part with them all, desperate to halt the obesity epidemic, to take control of our kids’ climbing BMIs?

I’m reacting to the recent NY Times article on the government’s plan for voluntary principles for food manufacturers, regarding advertising products to children. ( Make foods healthier or stop advertising them to kids, is the message. “The guidelines call for foods that are advertised to children to meet two basic requirements. They would have to include certain healthful ingredients, like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, or low-fat milk. And they could not contain unhealthful amounts of sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and salt.”

Is a sugar limit really the best way to control our kids' obesity?
Scott Faber, representing food makers, said that “…ads for packaged foods on television shows aimed at children 2 to 11 had dropped significantly since 2004, and that the ads more often showed healthier types of foods.” Yet based on CDC data, obesity rates among kids nearly tripled since 1980, and continues to climb .

Hmmm, something just doesn’t add up. Maybe it’s not the ads that are the problem, but the number of hours sitting around watching TV and playing video games that’s an issue!

Guess how much sugar is in 1 Tbsp?
But what if we did limit these useless foods being fed to our kids? Seems harmless enough. I mean, what harm is there in not having these items around, of omitting them from our kids’ diets?

Not so fast. Before we ban all things deemed unhealthy and we start setting criteria for labeling foods as healthy enough to be advertised to kids, consider the consequences. Here’s what I fear will happen: 
Inadvertently, we will stigmatize foods as good versus bad. And the last thing we need is more black and white rules. They make no sense, and they certainly don’t resolve the issues for a culture struggling with making peace with food and an inability to manage weight.
1 gram more sugar than in a serving of Frosted Flakes, and figs are
first ingredient. Should we restrict exposure to kids?
Let's think twice before we set absurd guidelines!

Take Jane, an adolescent who came to see me 2 weeks ago for weight management. Referred by her pediatrician, accompanied by her mother, I learned some interesting things in our one-hour session. This articulate 15 year old described the “perfect” home environment. Mom cooks nightly, providing the healthiest of meals. Full of vegetables and whole grains, containing lean protein, her dinners were nothing short of wholesome. Second portions were never an issue, as Jane didn’t care much for the foods that were served. But she made the most of it.

When asked if she liked baked goods and ice cream Jane replied shyly that she did—but that she never had them at home. These were banned as unhealthy. The result is that Jane eats more than her share of these items whenever she has the opportunity—when she is out with friends, or at a party— regardless of how hungry she is. It is “now or never” thinking.

It’s like the Halloween candy phenomena ( Restricting these items fails to achieve the intended goal and as I’ve seen, makes for an unhealthy relationship with food.

Now I’m a parent, too. And while my kids are way past the age where I can control their food choices, I do recall that time. So what did I do when confronted with their request to eat what their peers were eating (and what was being advertised to them on TV and at eye level at the supermarket)? How did I balance my need to provide a healthy diet, while minimizing conflict around food? And, maintain a healthy relationship with eating?

The only one allowed to snack in the living room.
I didn’t restrict their ad exposure, although I limited TV time so that they would use their bodies to be active and their minds to create through reading and play. There were no TVs in their bedrooms, and all meals and snacks were eaten at the kitchen or dining room table. The only one in our home who could eat his snack in his den was my dog, Mica, who would grab his biscuit and eat it in his bed. No such luck for the kids, though.

But when they did view television ads, I’d make a point of educating them to be critical thinkers. I would share with them that high sugar cereal may be called a healthy breakfast, but it’s like eating candy for breakfast. We’d discuss how perhaps that cereal would make a good sweet snack to have with a glass of milk, instead of eating cookies, if they preferred. Or I would point out how they were being tricked by the ad’s information, teaching them to be more critical viewers of the media and to not be manipulated by savvy messages and messengers.
When they were young, I’d offer the high sugar cereal as a mix in with a healthier, lower sugar cereal choice. For instance, Frosted Flakes mixed in with corn flakes, or a small serving of Fruit Loops mixed in with Cheerios. This achieved many goals. It minimized conflict and prevented categorizing foods as acceptable and forbidden. And, it kept their intake rather healthy, despite inclusion of small amounts of sweetened items. And now as adults, I see them choosing lower sugar, healthier selections. And stopping when they’ve had enough to eat, even of such favorites as white flour, fiber-less bagels.
1/4 c. has more than twice the sugar than 3/4 c of
Frosted Flakes. Should we ban them? 

What about the idea of allowing food manufacturers to target kids if their product were healthier? Specifically, if it had 8 grams or less of sugar, or contained a certain level of whole grains or capped the sodium content? Good intentions, but here’s what I fear. If it were limited to 8 grams of sugar as proposed, that eliminates much added fruit (including raisins) in the cereal. Yes, fruit is naturally high in sugar (24 grams in ¼ cup of raisins), and there’s nothing wrong with including it generously in your diet! And I can imagine that foods will be filled with diet sweeteners, as a means to lower the evil sugar content. I suspect most parents may not want to be pumping their kids with diet products throughout the day.

Chocolate chip cookies would hardly fit, based on the planned guidelines. But should they be eliminated from our diet? If you’ve read enough of the posts on this blog you certainly know where I stand on this.

Yes, this is from the raisin container. 100% natural raisins.
Kids, like adults, need to learn balance. They need to appreciate it as they get older and become independent. They need to learn that while a food itself may not be nutritionally rich, it’s important to have enjoyment from what we eat, regardless of where you are on the BMI chart! A food may not be so balanced by itself (for instance, it may be relatively high in sodium), but as part of a meal it may fit just fine. Perhaps what can change is that kids (and their parents) will consider their portion of pizza, but won’t eliminate it because of its high salt and low fiber content. Rather, they’ll include a glass of low fat milk at the meal and serve some veggies with it.

I write this post as both a mother, and as an RD—one who sees obese kids, and eating disordered children and adults. Let’s be careful to not replace one health epidemic, obesity, with disordered eating.

What was your experience as a child? And how do you approach this issue with your kids? Comments welcome!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I just re-read my comment and realized it needed some clarification. Here it is again, with a bit of a re-write:

    Right on!

    I was Jane. Never had "bad" food at home, so when I got out of the house, I often pigged out on sweets. It's taken me 54 years to realize that I don't have to eat it just because it's there. If I really want that sweet and I'm full, I can have it later.

    I have taken the same approach as you with my kids. We mix the sweet cereal (introduced by Grandma--I wouldn't actually have bought it when the kids we little--I blame her entirely LOL), with low-sugar Cheerios, for instance. I allow cookies and ice cream in the house and--miracle of miracles--the kids eat just one or two cookies or one bowl of ice cream...or none at all, if they're too full.

    I hope (and believe) that my teens are learning to eat normally. Totally banning the "bad" foods was one of the worst things that happened to me as a child, though I don't blame my mom. She was just trying her best and actually did instill in me a love for "real" food.
    May 4, 2011 8:08 PM

  3. Funnily enough I was Jane too! Only went the other way and have always felt far too guilty to eat the sweets. My mother (in my eyes) was perfect (and is lovely I should add :)). Didn't like chocolate and lollies. Was always fit and healthy. And I aspired to be just like her (naturally!). But it has left me with little lee-way for enjoyment of 'forbidden foods'.
    In my own family I have taken the advice you gave in that Halloween post. I have sweet biscuits in the house. But they are kept in their packets, in the biscuit tin, in the pantry. The rice crackers and fruit however are left on the counter - so they are naturally the first thing the kids see and choose. But the little treats are there and accessible should they really feel like one.

  4. Hi Lori,

    Of all the great points in your post, there was one item that took me back...cause me to think. It's what you said about how you required your kids to eat all meals and snacks at the kitchen or dining room table.

    I thought about this: My husband and I currently have a beautiful, cute kitchen table, but we NEVER eat there. Instead, we always eat on the couch. Come to think of it, it is on the couch where I nibble Luna bars and pick apart food. I hardly ever eat anything off of a plate. I wonder what would happen if I only allowed myself to eat meals and snacks at the of a plate! Perhaps it would help me to appreciate my meals more.

    I would love it if you would elaborate on this topic a bit more for me. What are the benefits of eating at a table versus lounging on the couch? I'm going to think about this some more because, although it would be really challenging, I think it's something that could help me.


  5. I love your three comments--thank you for sharing! Emily, I will make a point of addressing what you requested in more detail in a future post. Meanwhile, check out posts labeled with mindful eating, as it's all connected.

  6. I definitely do better with consumption of sweets if they are available and I can have them when I really want them. And, have only what it takes to satisfy.

    The biggest difference between my approach to food with my daugther from how I was raised is that she never has to clean her plate and she does not have to eat something she doesn't like just because it is "good" for her. She has to try it but, many nights she eats a pb&j sandwich.

    In no way do I blame my parents for my current weight (other than maybe genetics!); however, I do have to remind myself that I don't have to eat everything put in front of me. Constantly!

  7. My experience with food growing up is poignant. My parents were both heavy (at 5 foot, 2 inches, my mother weighed about 220 lbs. and at 6 feet, 4 inches, my dad about 320 lbs. They were BIG people. My mother wasn't much of a cook. We had a lot of things like frozen food (those huge family size entrees slathered in gravy for example!). And there were desserts galore. The grocery bag was full of sweets and no time was better than "shopping day" to go at them! There were frosted donuts and pop tarts, and Twinkies and cupcakes and cookies and so on and so forth. Sometimes my mother would observe finding food wrappers on the street (having eaten a snack on the way to school out of a packed lunch). She would approach a meal with "one hot dog for you kids each, the rest for your father" (and he would be served five of them!)... I never really thought about this. And despite this, didn't have a weight problem as I was very physically active as a child.

    I'm afraid, however, as a mother, I passed on many bad habits from my own mother (fast, quickly prepared or fast food). Sweets. It wouldn't have mattered what my daughter saw advertised, as children don't ultimately have the control over the food in the house. I think a lot of times parents are the influential ones! (What they put in the grocery cart!) My daughter was active too (we weren't big on t.v. and the like).... and never really had a weight problem. However, in high school she did put on an extra 20 lbs she didn't want and asked me to take her to Weight Watchers with me. That's another story!

    Point is (and her father was no better at this!) as working parents, busy, with little time, we weren't mindful. We didn't prepare quality meals but FAST food. Nor was I particularly mindful of nutrition. My weight problem didn't start until I hit 40 and physical ailments began to slow me down as well...

    I guess my point is, I don't want to blame advertisement for all the woes. I think responsibility for a healthy relationship with food STARTS IN THE HOME. I had a friend whose mother was a Home Economics teacher and I used to admire "the discipline" she had in making her food choices (I see now she practiced what she was taught!)....

    I do, however, think today's children are less challenged to get adequate physical activity, which doesn't help! I always kept my daughter busy in active after school programs, sports, and summer camps. Again, parents play a pivotal role here, to a degree.

    Could I have done better as a parent with my daughter's nutrition? Absolutely! But I didn't yet know better. And neither did my husband. I remember one time when I did Diet Workshop he got mad that I complained about him serving spaghetti and rice at the same meal! And he got up and dumped it into the trash!

  8. Quincy Carole-
    Great points! I'm going to fully respond in a separate post, so be on the lookout!

  9. I will! Interestingly, I remember a blessing a priest gave at a Boy Scout banquet of my brother's... I think because it applied so well in our household growing up. "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, who eats the fastest gets the most!" And when it came to diving into those chocolate frosted donuts, Twinkies, yodels, Cinnamon bread, Ring Dings, Hostess goodies, etc. that came home each Saturday, this is generally the rule that applied. Within a few days all the goodies were gone.......... Saturday was the best day!

  10. I had both "healthy food" and "junk food" at home. My dad loved his chips and twinkies...

    I'm five feet tall and reached full height at the beginning of high school. Every day after school in high school, I'd want a snack. Every day, I would open a 7 ounce bag of Lay's potato chips, usually sour cream and onion, that was actually supposed to be for my dad--and eat THE WHOLE THING.

    Is eating that much in chips healthy? No, it's a lot of salt and fat. Sometimes I'd even eat something sweet too. But I was hungry and it was enjoyable, and I was hungry again around 5:30 for dinnertime so I never thought of it as "bad" or inappropriate. (And I weighed 95 pounds all through high school--I was pretty active.)

    I think a lot of the childhood obesity has to do more with inactivity, as I ate plenty of fat and sugar as a kid and was thin at the time. I did gain weight in college when I sat more and still ate a lot, but then adjusted my intake and output.

    Regardless, I like what you did with your kids about not having things be good or bad. I still snack and I still eat dessert--I just don't down bags of chips that would now be over half my daily calorie intake anymore.... I think it's more important to exercise 1/2 an hour to an hour a day, personally.

  11. Yes you are right. I think sugar increases, more fat level in the body. So, try to avoid sugar and take honey in place of sugar.
    Gluten Free