There is a wonderful poem written by Dorothy Law Nolte called “Children Learn What They Live.” It’s a sort of cause and effect list that follows the pattern, “If children live with [X], they learn [Y].” It is an inspiring poem to me as a parent, and I had the pleasure of hearing the author read it at a conference once.
One of the things that Ms. Nolte didn’t include in her poem, however, is what happens when children live with good nutrition. I wouldn’t expect her to have included it, of course. She focused on more philosophical issues, although healthy eating does tie in with many pressing concerns in today’s society.
We need to model a healthy lifestyle to our children, and that includes healthy eating. A few years ago, researchers made some shocking discoveries. Let me share a couple of the headlines from that time: “Children’s Life Expectancy Being Cut Short by Obesity” (Pam Belluck, March 15, 2005, New York Times) and “Life Expectancy to Drop For First Time in 1,000 Years” (Jacqueline Maley and Mark Todd, March 18, 2005, Sidney Morning Herald). This is—pardon the pun—heavy stuff. Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?
According to the American Obesity Association’s website, there is only one cause of obesity that can’t be helped, and that is genetics. The other contributors like sedentary lifestyles (thank you, TV, computers, and video games), general inactivity, and poor nutritional choices are completely modifiable. Easy? Not necessarily, but isn’t our children’s health worth the effort?
A pediatrician friend and I often talk about nutrition because I am determined to teach my children to enjoy healthy food in spite of today’s focus on convenience. Unfortunately, convenient often equals unhealthy. But my choices are become my children’s choices. Our pediatrician often comments that he gets frustrated with parents who complain that their children won’t eat vegetables, yet they quickly offer very unhealthy options as a back-up. He submits that we’re just teaching our kids that all they have to do is whine a little to get the junk they know Mom and Dad have stashed away somewhere. So, he says, offer only healthy food and that’s what our kids will learn to eat—and like. Remember the season of Survivor when the team of starving players ate cooked rats out of sheer desperation, then commented on how surprisingly palatable they were? It’s amazing how tastes change when it’s rat (or green beans) or nothing.
So, that doesn’t sound too hard…in theory. But we’re also up against marketing, which is a powerful force in America. What I call Kid Food is big business here, and it’s pretty much all junk. Look at a kids’ menu in a restaurant and you see fried chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and corn dogs. Oh, and by the way, they’re nice enough to throw in fries with the main course. I asked in a restaurant recently if I could substitute some veggies for the fries in my daughter’s meal and the server’s response was, “Not on the kids’ menu.” Are you kidding me? And what about the food in the grocery store that targets our youngsters? Those prepared lunches, for example, offer such things as pizza rolls, tacos and nachos, and even cinnamon rolls.
Here is where we come back to Ms. Nolte’s poem. We have to resist the sweet pull of convenience-in-a-box and fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants dining or our kids are going to continue to suffer. Their lives are already expected to be shorter than the previous generation’s, and according to Belluck’s article, by as much as five years. So, if we eat burgers and fries, pizza, and fried chicken every night, that’s what we’re teaching our kids to eat. If for a snack, we munch on chips or ice cream, how can we expect our kids to ask for an apple? If we grab a Snickers at the checkout in the grocery store, we can’t respectably refuse our kids candy on the grounds that it’s unhealthy. It is not just about presenting our children with healthy food, but eating it ourselves in front of them (and for that matter, when they’re not around too).
I need daily motivation to make the right food choices. In fact, it’s more like an hourly requirement. But knowing that modeling healthy eating to my children may literally decrease her chances of developing nasty things like heart disease and diabetes, and ultimately will support a long life is just the motivation I need.
Jacque Butler is the owner of JB Fitness in Glenwood, Iowa. www.jbfitnessiowa.com For tips on fitness & nutrition, you can follow JB Fitness on Facebook.