Making the right choices easy and the wrong choices more difficult is what builds a family lifestyle around healthy eating, experts say. Habits are made that carry kids into a healthier future when they grow up with healthier choices.
“Simple substitutions are one way to increase the nutritional wallop in food. But being food smart requires paying attention at various stages of the food preparation process, from shopping for food to stocking your cupboards”, said Dr. Matthew J. Levine, endocrinologist at Scripps Green Hospital and assistant clinical professor of medicine at University of California San Diego School of Medicine.
“I’m a believer that if we can get to younger children, who have meals prepared for them, and make these substitutions, they’ll make healthy choices moving forward as well,” said Levine. “The obesity epidemic is being manifested in children and unhealthy foods are being introduced to them at an early age. Introduce good choices.”
Teens, he added, are more challenging, partly because they want to assert independence and even food is rebel territory. “If they have better choices embedded from an earlier age, I tend to think it’s more impactful.”
The goal for everyone is to feel better and be able to be active, said Shawn Talbott, PhD, chief science officer at Life Vantage, a Sandy, Utah, company that makes dietary supplements. Eating better and feeling better can put someone in a “virtuous” eating cycle; doing the opposite can create a downward spiral, he added.
There’s a difference between dieting and trying to have a healthy diet, according to Talbott. A healthy diet is a regular eating plan that incorporates smart nutritional choices over the long term. Some easy strategies to use:
- Reduce or even avoid simple carbohydrates. More complex carbohydrates take the body longer to break down and provide more energy, as well as minerals, fiber and vitamins. Sodas and jams are examples of foods with simple carbohydrates. Complex carbs include whole grains, legumes and peas.
- Always keep fresh produce in your house and buy it when it’s in-season. If possible, keep it out on the counter or at eye level in the refrigerator
- Banish junk food and keep healthy food on hand. For example, frozen grapes, pre-portioned nuts, and whole wheat crackers and similar choices that are better.
- Unsweetened applesauce can be substituted for sugar.
- Mashed avocados can take the place of butter.
- Zucchini strips can be used as a pasta substitute.
- Mashed turnips or cauliflower are healthy alternatives to starchy potatoes.
- Rolled oats to replace breadcrumbs.
- 1 tablespoon of ground flax seed with three tablespoons of warm water can act as an egg replacer.
Children of all ages often develop a sweet tooth, but many fruits can be substituted for sugars and satisfy cravings, said Levine. A small amount of something instead of a whole serving can do the same thing.