Kids’ Nutrition Myths – Busted

By Amy Newman

When it comes to kids and food, it’s a toss-up what’s harder – figuring out healthy meals to make or getting the kids to eat them. Add to that the never-ending advice from other moms, grandma and the Internet, it’s no wonder busy parents are ready to head straight for the nearest drive-thru and be done with it.

To help you sift through the noise and make feeding your kids a bit less stressful, local dieticians helped us bust some of the most common nutrition myths so you can make sure you’re fueling your kids with food that will keep them healthy and happy, and you a bit more sane in the process.

Myth: Kids should clean their plate.

Truth: When it comes to meal time, trust your child when she says she’s full.

“The parent’s job is to provide the healthy meal, and the kids are in charge of their appetite,” says Pam Horan, RD, CSP, LD with the Providence Pediatric Subspecialty Clinic. “We can’t push children to override their hunger cues.”

And expect fluctuations in the amount of food your child eats.

“Kids go on what we call food jags,” explains Diane Peck, MPH, RDN, Early Care and Education Obesity Prevention Coordinator with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. “Some days they’re hungry and some days they’re not.” Forcing them to clean their plate simply “encourages overeating and leads to excess weight gain.”

Myth: Picky eaters should have special meals.

Truth: You have permission to stop running yourself ragged preparing multiple dinners.

“Parents should not be short-order cooks,” Diane says. Serve healthy foods the whole family can eat, have at least one item you know your child likes, and be prepared for it to take up to 20 times of even seeing a food before your child is willing to give it a try, she explains.

If your child still won’t bite, try a different preparation method, says Tiffany Ricci, RDN, LD in Fairbanks. Roasting, grilling or even thinly shaving vegetables may be enough to get your child to at least tolerate a food. And because picky eaters often come from picky parents, make sure to model healthy habits by eating a variety of foods yourself, she adds.

Myth: Kids who don’t eat veggies have nutritional deficiencies.

Truth: Although not ideal, there’s usually no need to worry if your child refuses to touch his veggies.

“Kids’ bodies are amazing at absorbing what they need from food,” Tiffany says. “As long as they’re getting a variety of foods in their diet, they’re not going to be nutritionally deficient.”

Myth: Sugar makes kids hyper.

Truth: This one is short on facts but long on anecdotal evidence.

“The science does not point to that being a solid fact,” Pam explains, adding that the event where the sugar is consumed is the more likely culprit for the hyperactivity. Still, she says parents know their kids best, so while science doesn’t support an across-the-board “Yes,” she doesn’t discount that some children can be more sensitive to sugar’s effects than others.

Myth: Kids’ food must be kid-friendly.

Truth: Only serving “kid-friendly” foods like processed chicken nuggets can set the stage for a lifetime of unhealthy eating habits.

“The more processed the food, the more dialed in it is to our innate desire for sugar, salt and fat, setting kids up to not like healthy foods later on in life,” Diane explains.

Offering a variety of healthy foods at meal and snack time helps kids learn to like them, she says. If you need to make it fun, serve it in whimsical ways, like strips of apple for “apple fries” or cutting sandwiches with cookie cutters.

Myth: If my child is overweight, I should put him or her on a calorie-restricted diet.

Truth: For most kids, a calorie-restricted diet can cause more harm than good.

“Kids often put on weight before a growth spurt, so they grow out before they grow up,” Diane explains. “Restricting their calories might restrict their growth.”

Instead, focus on developing healthy eating habits and look at food as nourishment for the whole body, not just its calorie content, Pamela says.

And never tell a child he’s overweight or chunky, Tiffany adds. “They don’t need to start at that young an age to be focused on their weight.”

Myth: Kids “need” juice.

Truth: Plain water or 1-percent unflavored milk are the best drink options for kids, Diane says. Juice lacks the fiber and other nutrients found in whole fruit and has lots of added sugar and calories. If you do offer juice, make sure it’s 100-percent fruit juice, and give no more than 4 ounces for toddlers ages 1 to 3, 4 to 6 ounces for children ages 4 to 6, and 8 ounces for children 7 and older.

Soda should be a rare treat as well, Tiffany says. Not only is it full of added sugar with zero nutritional benefits, it “sets up a habit of needing to have something sweet to drink.”

Myth: Kids should drink two to three glasses of milk a day to be healthy.

Truth: As long as kids get enough calcium from other foods, milk isn’t necessary, Diane says. Yogurt, calcium-fortified soy milk and tofu, leafy greens and canned salmon or sardines with bones are all great non-milk sources.

Myth: The food label says “healthy” and “cholesterol-free,” so it must be good.

Truth: The only way to know whether a food is healthy is to check the label.

“The ingredient list is in descending order, so if you look at a box of cereal and it says whole grain wheat and then sugar, it means this is close to a cake,” Tiffany says. “It doesn’t matter if it has Vitamin D3 added to it or is made with whole grains; if the second or third ingredient is sugar, then that product is not healthy.”

Myth: It’s okay to eat fast food because my child burns off calories quickly.

Truth: The focus should be on the quality of the food your child eats, not the calorie count.

“All the food that kids eat should be nutrient dense, meaning it has more nutrition per calorie than something that is all calories with no nutrients,” Diane says.

Fast food, which is high in fat and sodium and limited in fruits and vegetables, doesn’t fit that bill. And letting kids eat fast food regularly now creates a habit that will be difficult to break later in life when their metabolism slows, Pam adds.

Myth: Frozen vegetables contain fewer nutrients than fresh ones.

Truth: Don’t worry that you’re sacrificing nutrition for convenience when you reach for frozen vegetables, Tiffany says. Frozen veggies are picked ripe and flash-frozen, which preserves their nutrients and, particularly during the winter, means they taste better than fresh vegetables flown in from outside.

Myth: Veggie straws or sticks have vegetables in them, so they must be better for you, right?

Truth: You might feel better feeding your kids those veggie straws you bought in bulk at Costco, but they’re nothing more than potato chips in a different form.

“The nutrients that will be found in veggie straws or veggie chips are going to be pretty small, and they tend to have a lot more fat in them,” Diane explains. “I wouldn’t count those as a vegetable serving.”

Myth: The sugar in fruit makes it just as bad as candy.

Truth: Chemically, the sugars in fruit and the sugars in a candy bar are the same, but how they are processed in the body is different. By volume, whole fruit has less sugar than candy and contains a lot of fiber that minimizes the sugars’ impact on blood sugar levels. Fruit also contains healthy doses of phytonutrients and antioxidants, while candy and desserts are nutritionally void.

Bottom line: That bowl of raspberries is always going to be a better option than a candy bar, Tiffany says.