If your child ended up with a lifestyle-related chronic disease in the future, could you confidently say that it’s not at all your fault?

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that 6 in 10 adults in the United States have a chronic disease and 4 in 10 have two or more chronic diseases. According to the CDC, the key lifestyle factors that increase risk for chronic disease are tobacco use, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and excessive alcohol use. With these numbers and risk factors, the chances are that many of our children will grow up to be adults burdened with at least one chronic disease.

As parents, we nurture our children, guide them, and do all we can to teach them our values including which football team to love and support. We do this hoping that they grow up to be responsible adults, who take care of themselves and contribute positively to society. One of the factors that contributes to a good productive life, is one’s health. Unfortunately, when one is young, the least of their problems is nurturing their body so that it can serve them well throughout their life. In most cases, when our children are really young, we feed them what we believe is good and try to ensure they get enough sleep and run around.

The new edition of the Dietary Guidelines (2020-2025) (DGA) presents the figure below, showing how the population of the United States adheres to the dietary guidelines. In this figure, a score of 100 means that people are meeting or exceeding dietary recommendations and a score lower than 100 means that people are having a diet that is of lower quality than what is recommended. The figure shows a score of 61 for children aged 2-4 years old. This age group is completely dependent on parents (or other caregivers) to provide food, so what explains the poor quality of diet consumed by these young children?

Source: Dietary Guidelines (2020-2025) (DGA)

Of course, the scores only get worse as children get older, dropping by a whole 10 points to a score of 51 by age 14-18. The worsening quality of diet through childhood and into adolescence makes sense as the DGA further report what every parent of children in this age group already knows. “As children transition to school-age and through adolescence, they are exposed to new food choices and they begin to have more independence in the foods they choose to eat. Peer pressure and increasing amount of time these children spend away from home as they mature into adolescents contribute to the food choices made as children get older.”

As you look at the figure above (scores increasing from 51 to 56 to 59 to 63) and probably from your own experiences, you might say, “well, my children will start improving the quality of their diet when they become adults, so let them eat what they want now.” The big deal, however, according to the Dietary Guidelines, is that “the children and adolescents life stage (ages 2 through 18), is characterized by transitions and the formation of dietary patterns. The dietary patterns established during this life stage tend to continue into adult years.” Another way to look at it is, the lifestyle choices made during this stage of life generally set the stage for problems associated with chronic diseases later in life.

So, there are two important questions every parent needs to answer with respect to the health of their children; one that is proactive and the other that looks back. As a parent, what can I do to change or affect the path my children choose regarding healthy lifestyles? In other words, how can I help my children work towards establishing healthy dietary patterns and physical activities, which are essential to preventing chronic diseases? God forbid a child ends up with a lifestyle-related chronic disease, as a parent, can I say that I did all I could to help them, that it’s not my fault, that there is nothing else I could have done to help them?

It is possible that you want to do better in helping your children make healthier choices regarding their diet but are wondering where to start. Dietary Guidelines “provide advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease. The guidelines are based on scientific evidence which also shows that it’s never too late to start and maintain a healthy dietary pattern.” If you click on the link to the guidelines above, it is very possible that you will be overwhelmed by the amount of information and wonder where to start. The main message as summarized in the figure below is to, “make every bite count”.  The figure shows how to accomplish this in the 4 steps shown and expanded in another figure.

Source: Dietary Guidelines (2020-2025) (DGA)

Since our mission at Chronic Disease Patrol is to help children take a stand against preventable chronic diseases, it’s exciting to see that the new edition of Dietary Guidelines provides dietary recommendations for each life stage, from birth to adulthood. Chapter 1 explains the guidelines and key recommendations in detail, giving examples of foods that contribute to increased intakes of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. Also, examples of meal plans that meet healthy dietary pattern requirements are given in this chapter. Chapter 3 of these dietary guidelines focuses on children and adolescents, identifying nutritional needs of this life stage and presenting recommendations along with how current intakes compare with the recommended dietary patterns. For example, current intake data shows that children and adolescents (ages 2 through 18) consume more than the recommended amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, while they consume less than the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. The Dietary Guidelines are generally designed for policymakers and nutrition and health professionals with the responsibility of helping all individuals and their families consume a healthy, nutritionally adequate diet. However, these guidelines also provide resources for consumers such as MyPlate Plan, which presents a good visual for children, an easy-to-read consumer brochure, and ideas about eating healthy on a budget, including tips and tricks for making healthier meals that can fit the busy schedules of most families with school-age children.

One recommendation the Dietary Guidelines give to help support healthy dietary patterns among children and adolescents is involving them in meal decisions, shopping, and cooking at home, and guiding adolescents’ selection of food purchased and consumed away from home. As a parent or caregiver, I might wonder whether this really works because I know that as children get older, it is harder to make them do what I want them to do – especially if they don’t understand why they need to do it. Similarly, getting them to make the right dietary and exercise choices is a big challenge if they don’t understand why that’s important. To help with this big challenge, Kate and I wrote a book entitled “Atherosclerosis Attack: Traffic Jam in Your Arteries.” This book is intended to help middle schoolers understand the impact of their daily lifestyle choices through a story. During this stage when children are learning to make informed choices and becoming more independent about choosing what to eat or which physical activities to engage in, the book helps them understand the long-term effects of their choices. If you haven’t yet, buy your child a copy of Atherosclerosis Attack: Traffic Jam in Your Arteries, then provide the support and environment your child needs to make healthy choices and hopefully establish healthy dietary patterns and physical activity.

Next, I use my two children as examples to show the impact we can have as parents in helping our children establish good habits regarding what they choose to eat or physical activity. My 16-year-old son surprised me recently. We did a couple of remodeling projects in the kitchen which meant that we could not use the kitchen sink for 3 days. During those days we ate out, and like I have said in my previous posts, I let everyone loose when it comes to eating out because we don’t do it often. My son loves pizza, pasta and everything Italian foodwise and he got good servings of those during the 3-day period. I was surprised though when I asked him at the end of day 3 if he wanted to take some pizza to school for his lunch the following day. His response, “Ma, no! Are you going to cook soon? There is something about all this food we have been eating. Maybe it is my ‘system’ but can you please cook tomorrow?”

I reminisced over this as I planned the meal for the following day.  The meal would include steamed broccoli, a cabbage roll dish (red cabbage plus ground turkey), which is a modified recipe from the Trim Healthy Mama’s Trim Healthy Table, and a zucchini-chicken dish based on my son’s recipe which I often modify because the rest of us can’t handle the amount of Italian seasoning he uses. Of course, my quite athletic son would need a real good source of energy, so we added the usual pasta. But this pasta is different from what he got in his takeout during the 3-day period because we use only whole grain pasta and his ‘system’ is used to that. So, the point is, if you establish healthy habits at home, they can pay dividends later even though in the moment your kids will probably be complaining about what’s served for dinner. In the case of our son who actually likes to cook, we let him choose healthier options from the categories of foods he likes and from those he doesn’t really care for, like zucchini, we ask him for ideas about what he or we can do to make them enjoyable. He has come up with several dishes that have become staples at our house.

Now if you have a child who doesn’t care for cooking, like my daughter, implementation is a bit tougher. But the starting point is still to make sure that they understand why they need to eat healthy. That’s where “Atherosclerosis Attack: Traffic Jam in Your Arteries,” came in handy since she likes solid reasons for doing anything, unless we are talking about the dangers of too much screen time, in which case all reasoning is futile.

Anyway, the conversation of making the right dietary choices and physical activities is ongoing in our home. This 14-year-old with a sweet tooth recently surprised me when she turned down sweets on a couple of occasions. I found out that she planned to eat better this year and she had formed an accountability group with some of her friends. Somehow, the accountability group didn’t work out but my daughter is still keeping up by making small steps and small sacrifices here and there. Not wanting to cook makes it harder for her to fix herself healthy dishes but she is willing to eat what I prepare and she even asked for a turmeric – ginger – lemon drink (Trim Healthy Mama’s Trim Healthy Table) that I prepare just for me and my husband since both kids didn’t care for it when we first made it. Also, this sweets-loving girl decided to opt out of the track season that’s about to start, which led to the conversation of calorie requirements for a sedentary life compared to an active one. We have talked about the fact that “school-aged children and adolescents need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day.” So, she decided that she will continue pursuing opportunities to play basketball and jump rope while waiting for her brother to finish track practice.

The point of this article is to encourage you (if you haven’t yet) and me to make helping our children establish healthy dietary and physical activity patterns an important part of our parenting. This undoubtedly comes with additional demand on your time but resources are available to help you, for example, tips and tricks for making healthier meals that can fit busy schedules. You can also check out some of our older blog articles for practical ideas about getting your children involved in choosing right for their bodies. Please visit us again for more ideas.

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