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Kids are back to school…and eating better

Young child washing veggies in the sink.
Father with little son washes vegetables on the kitchen before eating

Image source: Bigstock

With back to school, it’s time to get those lunch bags busy again. A recent study published in the Public Health Nutrition journal found that school kids are eating better than they did 15 years ago. But there’s still room for improvement.

The study, led by researchers at University of British Columbia, compared the diets of about 7,000 kids aged 6 to 17 between 2004 and 2015. The nutritional value of the foods were judged using the Canadian Healthy Eating Index, which considers 11 dietary components such as total vegetables and fruit, whole fruit, whole grain products, saturated fat and sodium.

Overall, there was a 13% improvement in the foods that kids were eating during the school day. Specifically, school kids were eating more vegetables and fruit, as well as eating fewer calories from “minimally nutritious foods” including sugary drinks and salty prepackaged choices.

That’s the good news, but we can do better. Kids still aren’t eating enough dark green and orange vegetables (important for folate and vitamin A) – think spinach, kale, broccoli, carrots and sweet potato. Kids are also falling short on whole fruit and whole grains.

Here’s what you can do:

• Get kids involved in the food experience.
 Ask them to wash veggies, chop ingredients and help with the cooking. Bonus – kids are more likely to eat the meals that they’ve made.
Set them up for success. Make lunches together. Include a variety of fruit, veggies and whole grains. Keep portions manageable for your child’s appetite.
Be a great role model. Monkey see, monkey do. When you eat broccoli, there’s a better chance that junior will too.
• Advocate for healthy eating.
 Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program. With the upcoming federal election, let’s put this on the agenda to nourish our future generations.

10 Things I Want for the New Canada’s Food Guide

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It’s been nine years since the release of the last Canada’s Food Guide and based on emerging research and trends, it’s sure time for an update! In fact, Health Canada is in the process of revising the Guide. Help all Canadians eat better and fill in this online questionnaire from Health Canada to help shape the new Food Guide.

Here’s my wish list of the top 10 wants for the new version.

1. Create age-specific Food Guides – how about a different one for kids, teens, adults and older adults. Each Food Guide could address the specific nutritional needs and issues for each of these age groups. For example…
• The Food Guide for young kids could include tips for feeding picky eating and food literacy/cooking skills.
• In the teens’ Food Guide, there could be messages around sodium and sugar sweetened beverages, maximizing bone density, and the benefits of cooking and eating meals with your family.
• The adult’s Food Guide could include tips for meal planning and healthy eating in the workplace.
• For older adults, the Food Guide could highlight the need for certain supplements, bone health, and the important role of protein in the prevention of age-related sarcopenia.
2. Take the emphasis off “low-fat” foods. Highlight foods that naturally contain healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, seeds and olives in addition to healthy oils.
3. Include advice about eating protein – evenly throughout the day, at every meal, and especially breakfast to help with satiety and to maintain muscle mass.
4. Include visual images of portion sizes – for example, a fist is about 1 cup (250 mL) and the size of your palm is about one serving size of meat, poultry or fish. Encourage Canadians to fill half their plate with vegetables and fruit to help keep other foods in the right proportions.
5. Add ideas for eating sustainably and locally. We are eating for the health of ourselves, our families and our planet.
6. Encourage individuals and families to connect with food. Cook meals, grow a garden and create healthy eating environments at work, home, school and play.
7. Focus not just on what to eat, but also how to eat. Sit down and eat mindfully. Enjoy meals with family and friends.
8. Consider creating a vegetarian Food Guide or include more vegetarian options in the new Guide.
9. Add a message about alcohol that echoes the national low risk alcohol drinking guidelines.
10. Include lifestyle messages about the importance of sleep and physical activity that are essential partners to a healthy, wholesome diet.

Revising the Food Guide is no easy task! It requires an extensive review of the evidence-based research as well as consultation with health professionals and consumers. Here’s hoping that some of my top 10 – and your comments too – will make it to the final round!

5 Ways to Celebrate Food Revolution Day

Food Rev Day May 20 2016

Jamie Oliver Food Revolution Day 2016

Globally, 41 million kids under the age of five are overweight, and another 159 million kids are malnourished. Something has to change. For over 15 years, culinary hero and food activist Chef Jamie Oliver has been campaigning for better food and health with a goal to improve global child health.

May 20th marks the third annual Food Revolution Day. The Food Revolution is an ongoing global campaign to improve child health by inspiring positive, meaningful change in the way our kids access, consume and understand food. And it all starts with good, fresh, real food.

Here are five simple things you can do today to build a healthy and happy generation for tomorrow:

1. Cook together! Chef and TV personality Guy Fieri says it best, “Cooking with kids is not just about ingredients, recipes and cooking. It’s about harnessing imagination, empowerment and creativity.” Cooking is a life skill.

2. Explore with food. Talk to the farmers at the local farmers’ market. Take the kids grocery shopping to see the variety of produce available all year long. Grow your own veggies. Plan a family outing at a pick-your-own berry or apple farm. Spend a day at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. Watch cooking shows together (MasterChef Junior, anyone?)!

3. Make a family cookbook. Go online, look at recipe apps, dust off your cookbooks and magazines. Try new foods and flavours. Put your favourites into a family cookbook – what a perfect holiday gift for friends and family!

4. Sign the Ontario Home Economics Association petition which urges the government of Ontario to make at least one food and nutrition course compulsory in high school. In Japan, cooking classes are mandatory in grades 5 to 12 – and could it be a coincidence that the Japanese have one of the lowest rates of obesity?

5. Sign up for Jamie’s Food Revolution.
Starting at 10 am BST (UK time) or 5 am EST on Friday, May 20, watch live videos on Jamie’s Facebook page where you’ll see him dishing up advice and starring in cooking videos.

Ontario Healthy Kids Strategy

One of the greatest public health concerns today is undeniably childhood obesity. In 1978, only 15% of children were overweight or obese. Almost 30 years later, in 2007, 29% of adolescents were at unhealthy weights. If current trends continue, by 2040, up to 70% of adults aged 40 and over will be either overweight or obese.

Last January, the Ontario government set an aspirational target to reduce childhood obesity by 20% in five years. Charged with this mandate, the Ontario Healthy Kids Panel outlined a three-part strategy in their recent report No Time to Wait: The Healthy Kids Strategy:

1. Start all kids on the path to health. A woman’s health and weight before she becomes pregnant and during pregnancy have a direct influence on her child’s health and weight. The Report recommends pre-natal and educational programs for all young women about the importance of healthy eating, active living, smoking prevention/cessation, and healthy weights. Support is also recommended to encourage women to breastfeed for at least the first six months.

2. Change the food environment. The healthy choices should be the easiest choice where kids live, learn and play. Some of the many recommendations for this strategy include:
• A ban on the marketing of high calorie, low nutrient foods/beverages/snacks to kids under the age of 12;
• A ban on point-of-sale promotions and displays of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages in retail settings, beginning with sugar-sweetened beverages;
• Mandatory calorie listing on menus at restaurants, fast food outlets and retail grocery stores;
• Nutrition rating systems for products in-store;
• Incentives for Ontario food growers and producers to support community-based food distribution programs;
• Access to safe, affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods, especially in areas of low income and “food deserts”; and
• A universal school nutrition program for all Ontario publicly funded elementary and secondary schools.

3. Create healthy communities. A comprehensive healthy kids social marketing program is needed to focus on healthy eating, active living and active transportation, mental health and adequate sleep. The Report recommends implementing community based programs based on EPOCE (Ensemble Prévenons l’Obesité des Enfants – Together Let’s Prevent Childhood Obesity) which is used in 15 countries worldwide. The EPODE philosophy involves mobilizing all local stakeholders in an integrated, long-term obesity prevention program. The aim is to change the environment and facilitate the adoption of healthier behaviours and lifestyles into everyday life.

My take on the Report: Having just finished writing a series of key messages on healthy weights for children and teens, I was thrilled to see the Healthy Kids Panel Report acknowledge the key determinants impacting a child’s weight – healthy eating, food and nutrition skills, active living, adequate sleep, mental health, resilience and the influential role of parents, teachers and caregivers.

Given the recent controversy over NYC’s soda ban though, I wonder how a junk food ban would be received. Neither a junk food ban nor an advertising ban helps kids with media literacy or how to discern between truth and advertising. We don’t even have an official definition of “healthy food” in Canada, so where would we start in defining “unhealthy”?

I’d also love to see more dialogue on how to eat, not just what or what not to eat. Research tells us that mindless eating is an unhealthy habit which can have negative consequences on our satiety cues and overall intake.

Finally, let’s be careful not to point blame at anyone or anything. The Report acknowledges that some children are genetically predisposed to be heavier. There are over 50 different genes that contribute to obesity. All efforts in reducing overweight and obesity must be free of any weight stigmatization or bias, and involve all players – individuals, communities, politicians and food industry.

The Healthy Kids Panel has mapped out an incredibly ambitious goal – to reduce childhood obesity by 20% in five years. I’ll be watching, listening, helping and hoping that we’ll get there.

To read the full report, go to

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