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A new perspective: it’s all about the habits

Yes, you can: in her book, It’s Not About the Broccoli, sociologist Dina Rose suggests that the most important thing we can do is to teach kids good habits

Almost every parent I’ve ever met has been united by some common themes: total exhaustion, addiction to caffeine, wide-eyed bewilderment (how can something so small poop so much?).

Yet, even if we’re hanging on to our sanity by a thread, it’s a golden thread of sorts. We’d jump off tall buildings, walk across hot coals and lay down our lives for these tiny little terrorists.

Why? Because they’re also insanely cute. They might cough into our open mouths and throw up down our backs, but they will also grasp our faces and gaze into our eyes and say something like: “Mummy, (dramatic pause) I love you more than Smarties.”

That little sentence saved Chloe more than once from adoption. It was also a sign of things to come. We did so well for the longest time keeping the sugary stuff to a minimum, but then came the birthday parties and school celebrations … and, after that, I was doomed.

You can never really undo the damage that a birthday cake with three layers of frosting can do to a child’s taste buds. Once they know, they know! An apple never seems quite so sweet in comparison.

I’ve taught children’s nutrition to parents and directly to young kids for years. It’s massively rewarding because it’s so valuable making a difference early on and preventing health issues before they arise.

I’ve always held the opinion that “knowledge is power” and aim to give all my clients a really solid education. But I also think that knowledge can be overwhelming.

Parents want the absolute best for their kids and they have a million questions.

With the best of intentions, many obsess over exactly how many bites of broccoli their child eats, or how many berries.

How many milligrams of calcium have they had? Do they eat enough protein? The questions go on and on and, on a mission to tick all the boxes, they become overwhelmed.

My job is always to try and be the voice of reason and to find a practical way through.

More so than ever now, however, I think we’ve all been overlooking something important.

While the detail is good and interesting and effective, it’s also not the most important thing. In her book, It’s Not About the Broccoli, sociologist Dina Rose suggests that the most important thing we can do is to teach kids good habits.

In order to get our kids to eat broccoli, what we often end up saying is: “If you eat all your broccoli, then you can have ice cream!”

What we’re doing is understandable, but also counter-intuitive because it doesn’t matter how much broccoli you eat, if you have ice cream every day, then that’s not good.

Rose suggests that, as parents, we’d be better off focusing on establishing healthy habits.

As a clinician, I think she’s definitely on to something. I spend 80 per cent of my time counselling overweight clients who are desperate to make a change, but who struggle to break the bad habits of a lifetime.

While it’s tempting to say, “but they’re kids, let them have cookies!”, wouldn’t it be better long term not to develop a cookie habit in the first place?

It’s so much easier to maintain healthy habits learnt young, rather than change unhealthy habits that have been in place for years.

Rose isn’t saying that kids should never be allowed cookies, but she is saying that the greatest value is in helping kids establish a baseline of healthy habits.

So, instead of teaching them that it’s OK to have cookies for a snack if they have had almonds too, we should be teaching them instead that all snacks should normally consist of fruit and vegetables. When she says “normally” she does mean the vast majority of the time.

Rose gives us some interesting statistics from the US. For example, nearly 40 per cent of the total calories consumed by children between the ages of 2 and 18 are in the form of empty calories. (This means that, although calorie requirements have been satisfied, the body still looks for nutrients, triggering hunger signals which are met with more and more junk. More and more junk, means more and more hunger for nutrients, which is constantly misread — and so the cycle goes on!)

In addition, Rose says that, on average, American children reach for cookies, chips, crackers and other processed snacks three times a day. Think about your children or the children you know …. are their behaviours similar?

I say all this without judgment because I know that for my own kids, their go-to snack would often be cookies. They are definitely good with fruit too, but they would almost never reach for a vegetable as a snack.

So reading It’s Not About the Broccoli was interesting for me. I do think we need to bear the broccoli in mind, but the value in establishing really healthy snacking habits is absolutely huge.

The girls are away with their dad at the moment, but the second they’re home, we’re going to start a healthy snack boot camp. (It’s a good job they can’t read this, otherwise they might not come home, haha!)

Jokes aside, even if your kids might not appreciate having the cookies and other junk decreased, how much do you think they’ll appreciate and benefit from healthy habits when they’re older?

I know this might sound heavy-handed, but I really think kids’ nutrition is a health and safety issue. We buckle up our kids in cars, we put helmets on them when they ride bikes, yet more of our kids will suffer from the impact of dietary-related chronic disease than injured in cars or on bikes.

Our kids don’t argue with us about seatbelts or helmets because it’s a totally normal habit that everyone has. It’s just what people do. Wouldn’t it be amazing if healthy eating was the same? The detail can be important, but let’s start with some healthy habits first.

Try transitioning your kids to fruit and vegetable-related snacks and see how you go!

Here are some quick ideas for you:

• Any combo of fruit with nuts or seeds: grapes and almonds, strawberries and cashews, oranges and walnuts, kiwis and brazils, bananas and pumpkin seeds … whatever combo your kids will like! The nuts/seeds are not essential, but they are good for adding staying power to the snack.

• Frozen watermelon (cut into triangles, insert a Popsicle stick through the rind, place in a Ziploc bag and freeze!)

• Carrot sticks, peppers or cucumber sticks with hummus or guacamole.

• Apple slices with almond butter or organic cheese.

• Celery sticks filled with almond butter, organic cream cheese or hummus.

Catherine Burns is a qualified nutritional therapist. For more details: www.natural.bm, 236-7511 or Natural Nutrition Bermuda on Facebook