It’s fast, tasty, and convenient, and sometimes parents succumb. Especially when the kids keep begging for it.
Yet we all know that junk food is bad for kids. Here’s a quick look at the consequences, and some tips for weaning your kids off this unhealthy habit.
How Junk Food Affects Our Kids
Fast food is not only contributing to overweight and obesity in kids. Junk food has a myriad of consequences on both physical and mental health.
- Energy and Focus: Junk food and foods with high sugar content deplete energy levels and the ability to concentrate.
- Diabetes: According to the Prevention Institute, experts blame junk food for rising rates of diabetes, which is increasingly affecting young children.
- Self-esteem: According to “Kids Health Club” magazine, junk food can affect a child’s physical development in negative ways (including weight gain), which can result in self-esteem problems. Low self-esteem can lead to depression. The Mayo Clinic also reports that junk food can potentially cause depression on its own.
- Obesity: A 2004 study found fast-food consumption in children was linked with many dangerous precursors for obesity.
- Intelligence: A 2012 study from the University of London found that children who consume more fast food grow up to have lower IQs than those who regularly eat freshly cooked meals. Higher fast food consumption was linked with lower intelligence, even after adjustments for wealth and social status were taken into account. These results confirmed those from an earlier August 2012 study that showed toddlers who consume junk food grow less smart as they get older.
A Battle for Your Kids’ Health
If you’re ready to make a change, be ready for a fight. Fast food companies are master advertisers, and know just how to reach into your children’s brains. In fact, the food and beverage industry spends approximately $2 billion a year marketing to children, according to the Federal Trade Commission, with more than $5 million of that spent every day marketing unhealthy foods to children.
Kids watch an average of over 10 food-related ads daily (nearly 4,000 a year), and according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, nearly all are for products high in fat, sugar, and/or sodium.
Unfortunately, those ads seem to be working. A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, nearly 40 percent of children’s diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that only 21 percent of youth age 6-19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Meanwhile, a 2009 study found that when children were exposed to television content with food advertising, they consumed 45 percent more food than children exposed to content with non-food advertising.
The effects are long lasting unless parents do something to intervene. Another 2009 study found that even five years after children were exposed to promotions of unhealthy foods, they purchased fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but increased their consumption of fast foods, fried foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Tips to Wean Kids Off Junk Food
Saying you want to improve your children’s’ diets and actually doing it are two different things. Here are some tips to help:
- Model healthy eating behaviors. As they say, actions speak louder than words, and nowhere is that more true than with your children. The more they see you eating healthy, the more likely they’ll be to copy you, at least when they’re younger. (Doesn’t work so great with teens!) Sit down with your kids at each meal and let them see you enjoying your fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Sit down together for meals. The sit-down meal has all but disappeared from American life. Yet studies have found that it’s key to healthy eating. The Ohio State University College of Public Health found that three very simple changes in family behaviors reduced the risk of childhood excessive weight gain by up to 40 percent. These included 1) sit down to dinner as a family, 2) limit television watching to 2 hours a day, 3) get 10.5 hours of sleep a night (for young children). An earlier 2000 study also found that 9- to 14-year olds who ate dinner with their families most frequently ate more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. Their diets also had higher amounts of key nutrients like calcium, iron, and fiber.
- Clean out your cupboards. Get rid of all the sweets, chips, and other overly fatty, processed foods. Make the unhealthy stuff unavailable.
- Get the whole family in on it. You can’t expect little Jack to choose green beans if his father is eating French fries. Make a family commitment to eat healthier.
- Juice together. Kids love fruit smoothies, so use them as a way to sneak in healthier food options. You can mix in some veggies (carrots, cauliflower) with the fruit, fruit juice and yogurt, and your kids will never know.
- Make a list of foods your children like. Start with the positive side. What foods do your kids already like that are healthy? Think of things like apples, bananas, carrots, whole wheat bread, almond butter, and the like. Start with more of these foods, then gradually add in new items as you go.
- Use fun combinations. It’s amazing what kids will eat when you put a bit of cheese on it. Try broccoli with cheese, celery with peanut butter, meatloaf with green peppers, cheese quesadillas with some black beans, etc.
- Add new food every 2-3 days. If you’re trying to teach your child to like green beans, add it every 2-3 days or even once a week. Don’t make a big deal of it—just continue to add it to your meals and insist that the child try it each time. Dress it up with some sprinkled cheese, salt and pepper, a little warm butter, or other sauces.
- Create “bridge foods.” To help wean your child off junk food and move him into healthier food, take an old favorite like macaroni and cheese and make it a little differently. Use whole-wheat noodles and low-fat cheese, for instance. Serve a lower-fat burger or even a veggie burger instead of a regular fast-food burger. Change a white bun to a whole wheat one. Slip some lean chicken into the cheese quesadilla, or choose a pizza with chicken and vegetables instead of pepperoni.
- Don’t be afraid to let your child be a little hungry. Children are smart. If they know they can refuse dinner and eat a bag of chips later, you’ll never succeed in changing their eating habits. You’re not being a bad parent if your child goes to bed a little hungry for a day or two. If you cave and let her eat cookies and chips, however, you’re setting her up for a lifetime of poor health. Hunger is a good motivator to eat healthy.
- Explain. Kids will have questions about the changes you’re making. Explain to them that you’re helping the whole family to be stronger, healthier, and smarter. Show them all the positive sides of eating well.
- Read about it. There are books out there that can help your children understand what healthy eating is all about. Try Janey Junkfoods Fresh Adventure!, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, and Things Every Kid Should Know—Junk Food!
- Take them grocery shopping. Get your kids into the act. Have them help you find healthy items at the grocery store, then be sure to prepare the items they find. If Luke picks out yams, for instance, be sure to prepare those soon afterwards and heap on the praise for Luke’s wise choice. It’s also fun to let each child pick a new healthy food to try each week before going to the grocery store, then let them hunt down the item in the aisles. The more fun your kids have eating healthy foods, the more they’ll want to continue the habit.
- Make healthy versions of unhealthy favorites. If your kids love pizza (and who doesn’t?), try healthier versions like pizzas with whole-wheat English muffins, tomato sauce, and low-fat mozzarella cheese. Cook fries by spraying potato wedges with olive oil, sprinkling on salt, and baking at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes per side. Most all unhealthy foods have a healthier option if you seek out the recipes.
- Hide the good stuff. Mixing in vegetables in soups and casseroles is a good way to get them into your family in a subtle way.
- Put up healthy snacks. Instead of buying expensive and unhealthy snack items, make up your own. Mix dried fruit and nuts into small Ziploc baggies. Slice up apples, or fill a small plastic container with cut up carrots, celery, and some low-fat Ranch dressing or almond butter. Try a cup of yogurt with fruit and almonds. The options are endless. The key is to have these types of healthy snacks available for snack time.
- Make one meal for everyone. Many parents feel they have to be short-order cooks, making a different meal for each kid, then something else again for themselves. Unfortunately, this often leads to unhealthy childhood eating, as the parents typically have chicken, fish, salad, and vegetables, while kids eat hot dogs and potato chips, macaroni and cheese, and pizza. Make one healthy meal and stop there. Make it a rule—no special orders allowed. Kids can eat it or not, but if they are hungry, they’ll be more likely to eat.
- Try a distraction. If your kids come to you in between meals saying their hungry, yet they don’t want a healthy snack, they’re probably bored. Along with the healthy-snack options, offer a new game or play idea. Try, “You can have some sliced apples and almond butter, or we can go outside and play catch.” Weaving new activities into your child’s day is also a good healthy way to get kids moving!
Have you managed to get your kids to stop craving junk food? Please share your ideas!
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Alissa Fleck, “How Junk Food Affects Children,” SF Gate, http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/junk-food-affects-children-5985.html.
Sarah, “Study Warns: Kids Who Eat Fast Food Have Lower IQs,” The Healthy Home Economist, October 21, 2012, http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/study-warns-kids-who-eat-fast-food-have-lower-iqs/.
“The Facts on Junk Food Marketing and Kids,” Prevention Institute, http://preventioninstitute.org/focus-areas/supporting-healthy-food-a-activity/supporting-healthy-food-and-activity-environments-advocacy/get-involved-were-not-buying-it/735-were-not-buying-it-the-facts-on-junk-food-marketing-and-kids.html.
Kovacic, W. e. (2008). Marketing food to children and adolescents: A review of industry expenditures, activities, and self-regulation: A Federal Trade Commission report to Congress. Federal Trade Commission.
Story M, L. N. (2008). Food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents research brief. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.?5 Reedy J, K.-S. S. (2010).
Dietary sources of energy, solid fats, and added sugars among children and adolescents in the United States. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110, 1477-1484.
(2004). Physical activity and good nutrition: Essential elements to preventing chronic disease and obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Harris JL, B. J. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior. Healthy Psychology , 28 (4), 404-413.
Barr-Anderson DJ, L. N.-S. (2009). Does television viewing predict dietary intake five years later in high school students and young adults? . Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act , 6 (7).
Jenny Hope, “Meals with the family can cut risk of child obesity by 40%,” Daily Mail, February 14, 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1249512/Family-meals-cut-risk-child-obesity-40.html.
Sarah Klein, “8 Reasons to Make Time for Family Dinner,” CNN, October 25, 2011, http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/25/living/family-dinner-h/index.html.