Teaching Our Kids the Difference: Food vs. Food-Like Substances

By Jamie Bell
Columnist for the Journal

When I was a child in school, I recall there always being one or maybe two overweight children in class. Childhood obesity was the exception, not the rule.  Most kids were generally lean and healthy.  My generation grew up on mostly homemade meals; eating out, snacks, and sweets were an occasional treat.  As I have volunteered in my kids’ classrooms over the last eight years, I have noticed that this ratio has definitely shifted. The percentages of children who fall within a healthy body fat percentage appear to have dwindled to dramatically low levels.  Chubby is the new normal, and to see obese children is a common occurrence.  According to the CDC, “the percentage of children age 6-11 years old who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012.  The percentage of adolescents age 12-19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to 21 percent in the same period.”  Adult obesity is even higher, between 30-40 percent nationally.

Why is this childhood obesity epidemic so alarming? Future generations are on a path that will result in a society where the majority of people are extremely unhealthy.  Our children our facing a life that is overwhelmed with health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and other issues. The last 100 years our country has enjoyed prosperity, innovation, and advancement in every aspect of our lives. However, the crippling effects of the average American diet are creating an alarming threat to our very way of life.  How can a society of people who are controlled by sugar addictions and suffer from a wide variety of debilitating diseases brought on by their diet be a strong, prosperous, and productive nation?  Change must happen now with how our children perceive and utilize food if we are to change the course for future generations.  Sedentary lifestyles definitely contribute to the obesity problem, but the way American children eat is the main culprit for the alarming rise in childhood obesity.

One of the most important lessons I continually try to reinforce to my own children is for them to understand the difference between “Food” and “Food-like Substances.”  We like to challenge them to accurately identify what “real” food is:  Anything that has been grown, is a plant or animal, or comes from a plant or animal.  The most important part of understanding real food is understanding that it hasn’t been chemically modified, processed, or changed from its original or organic form. I explain to them that “Food-like Substances” are products that seem to accomplish the same thing as real food:  they make us feel full and satisfy our hunger, they give us energy and allow us to grow, and they probably taste pretty good (maybe even better than real food to many!)  However, the artificial chemicals, preservatives, additives, etc. that have been used to change the food from real food into something else have also created something that can be harmful to our bodies.  Our bodies quickly identify these “food-like substance” as foreign.  Our bodies still attempt to metabolize and use these products as fuel, but dangerous side effects occur when we eat food-like substances. Hormone and insulin levels are thrown off balance and often our body produces high levels of inflammation to attempt to fight what it views as a foreign substance.  Real food, on the contrary, creates ideal hormone and insulin levels within our bodies. Our cells identify these substances as real energy sources, and the micronutrients within the whole food are exactly what your body needs to correctly metabolize the food and use it as energy.

For so many children, foods like boxed macaroni and cheese, pizza, fries, white bread, chips, crackers, fruit snacks, flour tortillas, cold cereal, frozen waffles, etc. are the main staples of their diets.  Very few real fruits and vegetables or lean protein sources ever cross their plates.  So many parents feed their children items that they would never consider eating themselves, because that’s “all their kids will eat.”  I am a firm believer in the idea that children will mimic the habits of adults around them, and they can learn to love the foods their bodies really need when they are continually and repeatedly offered these foods. All children, regardless of body weight or composition, need to be educated about the negative effects that “food-like substances” have on their bodies.  Additionally, when processed, high-sugar snacks or foods are not available, kids will turn to healthy options like fresh fruits and vegetables or nuts and seeds if that is their only option.  It takes time to transition them away from “food-like substances,” but it can be done.  Set plates of fruits and veggies out on the counter while you are preparing dinner, or between meals.  Healthy food needs to be readily accessible; it needs to be as easy to grab a few carrots as it is to grab a handful of chips.   Empowering your children with healthy eating habits is a gift that will last a lifetime and allow them to reach their full potential.

Jamie Bell is the co-owner of Kulak CrossFit in Chubbuck and a health and exercise enthusiast. She holds several CrossFit certifications, including one for kids/teens. Bell is also a licensed physical therapist assistant, a Former ISU track heptathalete and the proud mother of four.

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