Healthy Eating, Part II – What foods do children need? What foods should be avoided?

Beautiful fresh peas in and out of pods. Healthy Eating for Children - What foods do children need?

When my son Kevin was about 3 years old, he spied a green pea. He picked it up between his fingers and rolled it over. It looked good! He then pushed the pea up his nose. Interesting. Vegetables are fun! He used another pea to push the first one up higher. Then another. Yet another pea followed the first three into Kevin’s nose–and it was not the last!

Kev was not satisfied until he had enjoyed five peas–in his nose! Later, in the emergency room, after they’d removed the peas, Kev’s older brother Garrett, with a sweet twinkle in his eye, called Kevin a pea-brain!!! When I say that kids need vegetables, I mean they need to eat vegetables — by mouth.

It’s hard to compete against fast-food kids’ meals–salty, fatty food, served quickly, in a bright, exciting place–and they come with toys! It’s no wonder trips to fast-food restaurants have become the pinnacle of gastronomic delight for most preschool children in the United States. But here, in these fast-food restaurants, children miss out on important nutrients and fill their tummies (and arteries) with things they don’t need. We need to be very clear about what they need and what they don’t in order to avoid being knocked over by the junk food current.

Whole Grains – Yes!

Children do need whole grains. They do need fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. They do need a source of calcium for their growing bones. They do need healthy sources of proteins, either from fish, poultry, eggs, and meat, or from plant sources. These foods give them the vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients they need to build high-quality bodies.

Sugar – No!

Children do not need to eat large amounts of sugar. In the 1800s, the average American consumed 12 pounds of sugar per year. By 1975, however, after the overwhelming success of the refined-food industry, the 12 pounds had jumped to a world-leading 118 pounds per year, and jumped again to 154 pounds per capita (for every man, woman, and child) by 1997. This amounts to 53 teaspoonfuls of added sugar per person per day. This is in contrast to the recommended 6-18 teaspoonfuls per day, depending on total calories in an individual’s diet, recommended by the USDA (Food Consumption, Prices and Expenditures, United States Department of Agriculture, 1999).

The effect of sugar intake on children’s behavior is a hotly debated topic in pediatrics. Parents and educators often contend that sugar and other carbohydrate ingestion can dramatically impact children’s behavior, particularly their activity levels. Physicians, on the other hand, have looked at controlled studies of sugar intake and have not found hypoglycemia or other blood sugar abnormalities in children who are consuming large amounts of sugar.

An interesting article appears in the February 1995 edition of the Journal of Pediatrics. In contrast with other research teams, William Tamborlane, MD, et al of Yale University, leaders in child nutrition, reported a more pronounced response to a glucose load in children than in adults.

It is commonly acknowledged that as blood glucose levels fall, a compensatory release of adrenaline occurs. When the blood glucose level falls below normal, the resulting situation is called hypoglycemia. Signs and symptoms that accompany this include shakiness, sweating, and altered thinking and behavior.

Tamborlane and his colleagues demonstrated that this adrenaline release occurs at higher glucose levels in children than it does in adults. In children, it occurs at a blood sugar level that would not be considered hypoglycemic. The peak of this adrenaline surge comes about 4 hours after eating. The authors reason that the problem is not sugar, per se, but highly refined sugars and carbohydrates, which enter the bloodstream quickly and produce more rapid fluctuations in blood glucose levels.

Breakfast – Yes!

Giving your child a breakfast that contains fiber (such as oatmeal, shredded wheat, berries, bananas, or whole-grain pancakes) should keep adrenaline levels more constant and make the school day a more wondrous experience. Packing her or his lunch box with delicious, fiber-containing treats (such as whole-grain breads, peaches, grapes, or a myriad of other fresh fruits) may turn afternoons at home into a delight.

Refined sugars also affect insulin control, which decides how much fat they will store for the rest of their lives. As a child, I had HoHos, Twinkies, and Ding Dongs as regular parts of my meals because my mother, like so many of that era, wanted to give her children a nice treat. We both shudder now to think of it.

Sugar is not just found in sweets or junk cereal. It’s in almost everything. When you look at labels, you find sugar, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, sorbitol, or corn syrup on almost every label. The more simple meals from whole foods contain much less sugar.

Fruit juices contain lots of simple sugar without much fiber. Many people think of juices as health foods. This simply isn’t true. In small quantities they are fine, but they are mainly a way to get many of the calories and some of the nutrients from a substance, without getting as full and without getting the needed fiber. One study has shown that children who drink more than 12 ounces of fruit juice per day are shorter and fatter than those who don’t.

Fruits contain lots of sugar, but it’s in a form that’s intended for the body to use. Instead of sugar-coated breakfast cereal, try cereal with berries. Most kids like this. They enjoy the treat, and it stays healthy.

Refined White Flour — You Guessed it, NO!

Children do not need large amounts of refined white flour. Again, in this century, white flour has become a major part of our diets. This simple carbohydrate acts in our bodies much like white sugar–empty calories that disrupt energy levels and insulin levels and increase body fat. The risk for diabetes increases with consumption of white bread, white rice, mashed potatoes, and French-fried potatoes (Journal of the American Medical Association, February 12, 1997). White flour can easily be replaced with whole-grain flours. Whole-grain cereals can replace breakfast cereals made from white flour. Which are whole-grain cereals? Special K? Product 19? Corn Flakes? Cream of Wheat? No. No. No. But the following are: Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Total, Wheaties, Spoon-Size Shredded Wheat, Grape Nuts, and oatmeal. When selecting among whole-grain cereals, try to minimize sugar and chemical additives.

Fiber – Yes!

Children do need fiber. They need at least 19 grams per day; adults need 21-38 grams per day depending on age and gender (Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005). Dietary fiber is essential for optimum health (Pediatrics, 1995 supplement). Most children in the United States get far less than they need. White-flour snacks, breads, and cereals are major culprits . Fiber is found in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Don’t let the names of products fool you. Names like Pepperidge Farm Light Style Seven Grain, and Arnold Bran’ola Nutty Grains Bread sound like they would be made mostly from whole-grain flour. Nope. Arnold Country Wheat and Pepperidge Farm Natural Whole Grain Nine Grain breads are, however. Nabisco Reduced Fat Triscuits and Wheat Thins are primarily whole wheat. Wheatsworth crackers are not!

Check the first ingredient on the ingredients lists of breads and crackers. It should say “whole wheat” or some other whole grain, such as oats. “Wheat flour” or “enriched wheat flour” are not what you are looking for–they are essentially plain white flour.

If the front label says, “Made with whole wheat” or “Made with whole grain,” get suspicious! Usually the product is mostly refined white flour with a touch of whole grain thrown in to fool you! Front labels can easily deceive. These breads are made with mostly refined flours:

  • Cracked wheat
  • Multi-grain
  • Oat bran
  • Oatmeal
  • Pumpernickel
  • Rye
  • Seven bran (or twelve bran)
  • Seven grain (or nine grain)
  • Stoned wheat
  • Wheat
  • Wheatberry
  • Whole bran (bran is just the outer part of the grain kernel)

(Source: Nutrition Action Healthletter, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, March 1997) Some of these names are enough to make you think that the manufacturers are trying to fool us into thinking that their products are healthy when they are not.

Fat? Some is good, but not too much & focus on “healthy fats”

Children do not need large amounts of fat–although fat by itself isn’t quite the culprit that most people think. Fat in combination with simple carbohydrates (such as sugar, white flour, white rice, or potatoes) is far more dangerous than fat alone because the fat is handled by the body so differently. French fries, potato chips, cheeseburgers on white-flour buns, donuts, candy bars, and the like are particularly bad. Butter on vegetables is much better for us than butter on white toast. Children do not need partially hydrogenated anything. These artificial fats, so commonly found in items on grocery store shelves, are not found anywhere in nature. It pays to take an honest look at what your children are eating.

Now that we have our sights set on what foods to choose, tomorrow we will continue this five-part series with how to make these choices enticing.

More Information on Healthy Eating:
Healthy Eating, Part I – How important is good nutrition?
Healthy Eating, Part II – What foods do children need? What foods should be avoided?
Healthy Eating, Part III – The five greatest motivators for preschool children to eat healthy foods.
Healthy Eating, Part IV – Motivators for school age children and adolescents.
Healthy Eating, Part V – Good news for vegetable haters everywhere!

Dr. Alan Greene

As a father of four himself, Dr. Greene has devoted himself to freely giving real answers to parents' real questions -- from questions about those all too common childhood conditions to those that address the most recent and rare pediatric illnesses. His answers combine cutting edge science, practical wisdom, warm empathy, and a deep respect for parents, children, and the environment. He is also an electrifying public speaker, and has personally touched many during his talks in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Dr. Greene is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of California at San Francisco. Upon completion of his pediatric residency program at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Northern California he served as Chief Resident. He entered primary care pediatrics in January 1993.

Dr. Greene is the Past President of The Organic Center and on the Board of Directors of Healthy Child Healthy World. He is a founding partner of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. He also consults for the Environmental Working Group.

In 1995, he launched, cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site” on the Internet. His award-winning site has received over 80 million Unique Users from parents, concerned family members, students, and healthcare professionals. In addition to being the founder of, he is the Medical Director for HealthTap.

In 2010 Dr. Greene founded the WhiteOut Movement to change how babies in the United States are fed. In 2012 he founded TICC TOCC - Transitioning Immediate Cord Clamping To Optimal Cord Clamping. He is also the founder of KidGlyphs, a free iPhone app that provides a tool for young children to express themselves beyond their verbal skills while teaching them important language skills.

Dr. Greene is the Founding President of the Society for Participatory Medicine and has served as both President and Board Chair of Hi-Ethics (Health Internet Ethics. He is on the Board of Directors for Healthy Child Healthy World, The Lunchbox Project, and The Society for Participatory Medicine. He has also served as an advisor to URAC for both their inaugural and their updated health web site accreditation program. He is a founding member of the e-Patient Scholars Working Group, and a founding board member of the Center for Information Therapy.

Dr. Greene is a regular columnist for Parenting Magazine. He is also the Pediatric Expert for The People’s Pharmacy (as heard on NPR) and Healing Quest (seen on PBS stations). He was the original Pediatric Expert for both Yahoo! and iVillage.

Dr. Greene is the author of Feeding Baby Green (Wiley, 2009), Raising Baby Green (Wiley, 2007), From First Kicks to First Steps (McGraw-Hill, 2004), The Parent's Complete Guide to Ear Infections (People's Medical Society, 1997), and a co-author of The A.D.A.M. Illustrated Family Health Guide (A.D.A.M., Inc., 2004). He is the medical expert for three additional books, The Parent's Soup A-to-Z Guide to Your New Baby, (Contemporary Books, 1998) The Parent's Soup A-to-Z Guide to Your Toddler, (Contemporary Books, 1999), and The Mother of All Baby Books, (Hungry Minds, Inc., 2002).

Dr. Greene is a frequent keynote speaker at important events such as Health 2.0 2011 held in San Diego, CA, IFOAM 2008 (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), held in Modena Italy, the first European Internet health conference, held in Maastricht, the first International eHealth Association Conference, held in Jeddah, and the largest e-Healthcare World Conference, held in Las Vegas, and the first Green Power Baby Shower, held in Hollywood. Dr. Greene also appears frequently on TV, radio, websites, and in newspapers and magazines around the world, including such venues as the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, Fox and Friends, The Dr. Oz Show, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC network news, NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time Magazine, Parade, Parenting, Child, Baby Talk, Working Mother, Better Home's & Gardens, and the Reader's Digest.

Dr. Greene loves to think about challenging ideas, he enjoys being where nothing manmade can be seen, and he wears green socks.

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