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Nutrition & Children

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March as National Nutrition Month is being used to raise awareness about healthier eating. In our KERA Health Checkup, Sam Baker talked with Meridan Zerner, a registered dietitian with Cooper Aerobics, about nutrition and children. She said many kids don’t always get the nutrients they need despite their parents’ efforts.

Meridan Zerner: Keep in mind that a lot of us really didn’t have a great education in solid nutrition when we were young, and certainly we have to take into account the economy. They may not have what they perceive to be a budget for a healthier diet. There’s an idea that healthy food has to be incredibly expensive, which is not necessarily the case. When parents are working that much longer, and it is what it is, you have to rely on these outside sources to fuel your children. And so they’re getting their lunch, perhaps even their breakfast, from school. So we need to look for a better quality meal there.

Sam Baker: It’s not easier, though, with all the processed food targeted at children.

Zerner: No. And more and more they’re giving schools and other programs discounts on processed food which makes it more appealing budget-wise. But the big picture is being lost. These kids are not healthy, with one in three being overweight or obese. They’re unhappy, there are higher levels of depression in children who are that unhealthy. They’re bullied. It goes on. The benefits of taking the time to make a few healthier choices, to support that, both at home and in the school, is incredibly worthwhile.

Baker: So what nutrients should children be getting, and does that depend on the age?

Zerner: It does depend on the age but as a concept we like to look at the plate model, so the government has a new plate model, which is wonderful. It’s something you can start to teach your children now. Half of the plate is color. You’re looking to fill half the plate with some fruit or vegetable. Now that’s a concept, that lunch has some color in it. I think we do a better job at dinner ensuring that there’s a vegetable for children. To make sure that the human body needs that, for vitamins, for minerals, as an anti-inflammatory. You need it. Health starts quite young. I’ve seen six and seven year-olds on cholesterol medication and that’s obviously quite concerning to me.

Baker: Six or seven?

Zerner: Six or seven year-olds with Type 2 diabetes, which is the kind of diabetes we used to call adult onset diabetes that comes from weight and diet and lack of exercise. We’re seeing this in young, young children.

Baker: When I was young the emphasis always seemed to be on Vitamin C, for starters; calcium. Are kids even getting enough of that these days?

Zerner: No they really aren’t. If you compare the 1950s to now, as an example, kids then would have three cups of milk to one glass of soda. Now it’s absolutely the reverse. Children today are having three cups of soda to one glass of milk. And it’s not necessarily about the milk, but its how are we going to get in calcium for their bones, along with vitamin D, which we’re finding is integral in cancer prevention, in allergies and asthma, in attention deficit – there are many things where Vitamin D can be meaningful. And it’s hard to get.

Baker: What are you recommending to parents to counterbalance this?

Zerner: Take advantage of any of the resources that are available to them. If it means that you make more of an effort to insure their breakfast, which you might be in control of, has a fruit in it, do that. Stand up for your children in terms of insisting that they have a healthy snack at school. Stand up for your children to insure that they don’t take recess away, which the fitness element is another big piece of the puzzle. Pack their lunch whenever possible. When opportunities present themselves to participate in any kind of an educational program for your children, whether you cook with them or garden with them or let them pick out some fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. These things have long-lasting results.

Baker: What accounts for kids’ resistance to vegetables? Does it have anything to do with their taste buds at all?

Zerner: It absolutely does. I think we forget as adults, by the time we’re our age – we’ll just let that go – we’ve lots about 50 percent of our taste buds. The way we experience broccoli is far different than the way a child experiences broccoli. It’s far more bitter. The flavor is that much stronger for children. That’s where we put the stamp of approval on putting a dash of Parmesan cheese on something, cooking it a different way. Maybe they’ll accept it if its raw instead of cooked – different ways to get that in because definitely they are super tasters.

Baker: How much does a parent’s behavior in terms of what they consume at home matter in what children will eat, at home or away from home?

Zerner: It’s a crucial component. They will absolutely mimic what you do. If you were going to say, ‘Eat your vegetables,’ but you are not eating yours, that’s what they are going to walk away with. If your snack is an apple and a low-fat cheese stick, those habits that you can establish now will carry them through a lifetime of health.

Meridan Zerner is a registered dietitian with Cooper Aerobics in Dallas. There’s more information on this topic at

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