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Despite the wide availability of nutritious foods in the US, parents worry about what to feed their children.

Parents need to know a few simple nutritional facts because nutrition is important. But other things are important too: enjoying food without guilt, guiding children toward a lifetime of wise food choices, having pleasant family meals without conflict, and taking into account how much, or how little, time Mother has for food preparation.

NUTRITION LESSON I deals with the basic nutritional facts parents should know. NUTRITION LESSON II (next WebParenTip Newsletter) will suggest practical ways parents can feed their kids “right” with a minimum of fuss.

Human beings are omnivores which means they are able to eat and digest foods of both vegetable and animal origin.

Eating a variety of foods best assures that all essential elements such as vitamins and minerals will be available to the body.

Children (and their parents) need to eat a balanced diet — what I call a “happy, healthy diet”. Such a diet is characterized by necessary amounts of protein and fat; little refined sugar; and an emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Fat is the hot topic in nutrition today. The typical American diet is too high in fat for optimal health. What are the “fat facts”?

1) There is a correlation between a high fat diet and coronary heart disease — still the leading cause of death in the US. A diet high in saturated fats is a strong contributor to the development of atherosclerosis (literally: deposit of yellowish plaques that narrow and eventually plug up the small arteries in the heart) which is the basic cause of a heart attack. The level of cholesterol in the blood helps doctors determine who is at risk of a heart attack.

2) Cholesterol is produced by the body as well as found in food. The cholesterol in the blood comes from both sources. There are two main forms of cholesterol-protein complexes carried in the blood: LDL (low-density lipoproteins) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins). An elevated LDL is undesirable because this complex sticks to the walls of the blood vessels. A higher HDL is desirable because it helps clear the blood of the bad LDL.

3) All fats are mixtures of the two kinds of fatty acids: saturated and unsaturated. Animal fats and tropical vegetable oils (coconut and palm) contain lots of saturated fatty acids with the largest amounts found in whole milk, red meats with visible fat, chocolate, tropical oils, and some solid shortenings. Eating large amounts of saturated fats can raise blood cholesterol levels. Eating too many foods which contain large amounts of cholesterol, such as eggs and liver, can also raise blood cholesterol levels. In addition a high total fat intake and a sedentary life style contribute to high cholesterol levels. A low-fat, high-fiber diet can help keep cholesterol levels down (and may protect against certain types of cancer).

4) Unsaturated fats come in two varieties: monounsaturated (olive, canola oil, and peanut butter) and polyunsaturated (safflower, corn, and soybean oil). These are the oils that should be used in cooking because they help lower the LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

5) Although heart attacks occur mostly in adults, the process of plaque buildup starts in childhood and is related to high cholesterol levels which is related to the intake of fats. US children have higher cholesterol levels and eat more saturated fats than children in other countries. And children with high cholesterol levels are likely to have high levels as adults.

6) A 1992 report of the Expert Panel on Blood Cholesterol Levels in Children and Adolescents recommends the following for all children over two: a) The child should eat a wide variety of foods. b) Calories should be adequate to support growth and development. c) Total fat in the diet should average no more than 30 percent of total calories with saturated fats less than 10 percent of total calories. d) Dietary cholesterol should be less than 300 mg per day. In addition it is recommended that children whose parents or grandparents have elevated cholesterol levels or a history of coronary artery disease should have their cholesterol levels checked. If the cholesterol is elevated, the child’s pediatrician may recommend an even lower fat diet and, perhaps, medicine to lower the cholesterol.

7) None of us — whether adult or child — can survive without some fat in our diet. Fats supply certain essential fatty acids which the body needs and cannot produce by itself.

8) Children under two need fats for optimal growth. In addition such children cannot tolerate the high-fiber diet that many adults eat today. Young children need a more concentrated source of calories and other nutrients such as found in whole milk and meat. It is dangerous to restrict calorie intake in any child or adolescent, especially in a child under two, unless it is done under the express recommendations of the child’s pediatrician.

9) Children over two can generally eat roughly the same diet as the rest of the family eats with pretty similar restriction in fats. All of us over two should eat a diet relatively low in fat, especially saturated fats. This is best accomplished by eating “heart healthy”: fewer animal products, low-fat or skim milk, margarine instead of butter, unsaturated oils for cooking, lots of complex carbohydrates like grains, beans, and vegetables.

There are no “bad” foods. However there are bad eating habits like eating too much of something or never eating certain healthy foods like vegetables.

Parents are the ones who buy and cook the food, decide when the meals and snacks are served, present age-appropriate food to the child, make family meals a pleasant time, teach the child table manners, serve as good role models, and teach the child how to make lifelong wise food choices. The ways parents can best do all of these things will be in the next newsletter.