What Nutrition Messages are We Sending Our Kids?

By Leslie Cox, MS, RD, CSP, LD

As a registered dietitian since the late 80’s, I have seen a lot of nutrition fads come and go.  The increasing popularity of organic, gluten-free, Paleo, and other similar diets has me particularly concerned. Not only is the science behind these theories flawed and lacking, these nutrition messages are particularly harmful to young people. As adults, we have the ability and life experience to make informed choices about our diet, but children do not. They do not have the capacity to understand concepts such as GMO’s or insulin resistance; instead, what they hear is “good food, bad food”. I specialize in pediatrics and eating disorders and what I hear from my clients as a result of these messages is troubling.

Recently I met with a high school student who had lost a large amount of weight and had not had a period in a year. Her overall health was so poor that she needed to be hospitalized. She told me that she was eating an organic diet that she saw on the Dr. Oz show and was also avoiding all dairy products because “cow’s milk is bad for you”. 

Another client diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at age 9, recalls her 4th grade teacher giving extra points if students brought in an “unprocessed snack”. This meant that if she wanted extra points, she could not bring a granola bar, goldfish, or any food with a food label.  In another classroom, her Spanish teacher was infusing nutrition messages into the Spanish lesson with phrases such as  “white milk is good” and “chocolate milk is bad”.   

As concerning as this is, I find it interesting as there is a new ad campaign touting the benefits of chocolate milk as an ideal post workout beverage. The site www.gotchocolatemilk.com is supported by a list of accomplished athletes, including former Olympic speed skater turned Ironman Apolo Ohno.   

So how did our country get to the place with such opposing nutrition messages? 

As rates of obesity continue to climb, so does the number of younger people diagnosed with an eating disorder. I believe that people of all ages are searching for the answer to optimal health in their life.  Unfortunately, the answer is not about food or a diet. It is about a lifestyle – moderation, balance and variety in both food and exercise is the key.  Unfortunately, this does not make headlines, nor is it trendy or flashy.  

We need to ask ourselves why the Japanese and Swiss have a high life expectancy and low obesity rates?  White rice is a daily staple in Japan and the typical diet in Switzerland consists of bread, pasta, potatoes, cheese, and a variety of red meats. Just something to consider before talking with our kids about nutrition and dieting.

Leslie is a registered dietitian specializing in pediatric nutrition and eating disorders in children, teens, and adults. She is in private practice with offices in Atlanta and Gainesville and is on staff at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta where she is a member of the inpatient eating disorder treatment team. Leslie also works at GI Care for Kids where she provides medical nutrition therapy for children with a variety of gastrointestinal conditions, weight issues, and feeding difficulties.