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Avoiding the Junk Food Trap

Posted 12/21/2017 by UHBlog

One of the best ways to reduce the risks of serious health conditions associated with obesity is to nip the problem in the bud. Ask us how to avoid the trap of childhood obesity.

Mother and daughter choosing fruit at grocers

About 17 percent of all Americans between the ages of 2 and 19 years old are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s too many, says clinical dietitian Janet Kramer, MPH, RDN, LD, adding that junk food is a major contributor to the problem.

“Childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970s, and the everyday excess of empty calories from junk food is one of the reasons,” Kramer says.

Junk food, she says, is anything that doesn’t provide nutritional benefits to our bodies.

“Cookies, cakes, candy and potato chips are loaded with sugar and/or fat, and so-called substitutes like pretzels and Goldfish crackers aren’t much better,” Kramer says. “They're made from processed white flour and salt. That, to me, is not a healthy snack.”

Unfortunately, the tight time constraints of everyday life often leave mom and dad reaching for convenient, easy-to-serve snacks, and the snack industry is eager to provide them. Potato chip sales alone topped $7.5 billion in 2015, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm.

“The snack food companies have made it so easy to feed the kids junk,” Kramer says. “Giving them a bag of chips is easier than slicing up carrots or an apple, and there are snack food companies marketing some treats as healthier than their traditional products. People ask me, ‘What’s the healthiest chip?’ There are no healthy chips. Baked potato chips, for example, may have less fat, but they contain added sugar and a lot of sodium, and they are still processed. Convenience food makes it very easy to consume a lot of empty calories without much nutritional value. That, in turn, contributes to obesity.”

So how do parents avoid the snack food trap?

Kramer has a few suggestions:

  • Start them young. Kids who snack on healthy fruits and vegetables at an early age are more prone to develop an appetite for them. Eating healthy can be as habit-forming as unhealthy eating.
  • Be a role model. Parents who devour candy bars and ice cream can't expect their kids to settle for orange wedges. Healthy living is a lifestyle the whole family should participate in.
  • Don't overdo it. An after-school snack shouldn't spoil a kid's appetite for a healthy meal.
    “A snack should be just enough to tide a child over until dinner,” Kramer says.
  • Serve balanced meals. Planning meals that include all of the major food groups - including plenty of fiber - should reduce your child's urge to snack on junk.
    “The dietary fiber you get from fruits and vegetables makes you feel full and satisfied, compared to snack foods that contain sugars and refined grains that fill you up for a few minutes, then leave you hungry again,” she says.
  • Prepare in advance. Slicing and packaging vegetables the night before school - and slicing enough to last a few days - provides healthy snacks that are just as convenient to serve as a bag of chips.
    “You can even make it a fun activity to get the kids involved in snack preparation,” Kramer says.
  • Work it off. Sitting inside the house watching TV and playing video games doesn't allow kids' bodies to burn the empty calories they consume. Go outside and play.
  • Get enough sleep. “Lack of sleep is the factor that we don't talk about enough,” Kramer says. “Sleep is very important for balancing hormones that control appetite, so chronically sleep-deprived children - and adults - can have disrupted appetites.”
  • Moderation is key. “I'm not completely opposed to eating junk,” Kramer says. “If you're getting proper nutrients through a healthy diet, and burning off calories, a little junk food is okay in moderation. The problem we have is that too many people are substituting junk for healthy food.”

Janet Kramer, MPH, RDN, LD is a clinical dietitian, Rainbow Ambulatory Practice, at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with a dietitian or any other University Hospitals health care professional online.

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