HEALTH BEAT: Every bunny needs balance in its diet

Published 11:34 pm Saturday, March 30, 2013

By Andrea Nikolai

As today is Easter and also the last day of National Nutrition Month, let’s talk about how to find a healthful balance between the Cadbury bunny and the Energizer bunny.
The National Nutrition Month theme this year is “Eat Right, Your Way, Every Day” and emphasizes developing a healthy eating plan that fits with individual tastes, lifestyles and food preferences. It is sometimes thought that eating healthfully means giving up your favorite foods, but this doesn’t have to be the case. It is important to look at the overall pattern of food eaten and aim to balance food with energy needs for the day and then the week. Most favorite foods can fit within a healthful eating pattern. With our busy lifestyles, it can sometimes seem difficult to the find the balance, but it is important for you and your kids. Bringing balance into meals and snacks is important to keep your children healthy and give them the right fuel for their growing bodies. It helps them feel and perform better and also teaches them how balance more nutritious foods with their favorite treats. Cookies and cakes can be okay sometimes but are often high in calories and lack nutrients. Look at the overall eating pattern and aim for the 80-20 rule. Help your children choose foods that are rich in nutrients (fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein) most of the time (about 80 percent), and then you can allow for less healthy foods some of the time (20 percent).
OK, so balance and nutrient-rich foods are the goals. How can you do this? Start with fruit and vegetables. Aim to fill half your child’s plate with fruit and vegetables because they are low in calories and full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. A 2-year-old should eat about one cup of fruit and one cup of vegetables per day, while a 14-year-old needs about two cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables. Some ways to help meet these needs are to have at least one fruit or vegetable at every meal and include fruit and vegetables in some of the snacks. Foods like apples or bananas are great on-the-go foods, and dried fruit and applesauce cups are great alternatives when fresh isn’t available. While fruits and vegetables are a great option, cookies and chips might be your children’s favorites. In moderation these too can be part of a healthful eating plan.
Next, include whole grains, as they are also rich in nutrients and fiber. Grains (whole or refined — the other type) should make up about a one-fourth of your child’s plate. Try to make at least half your grains whole. Do your children cringe at brown rice or whole wheat bread? If this is the case, try to find other whole grains to help them get the benefits. Popcorn is a whole grain (it is the whole kernel), as is oatmeal, and look for cereals and crackers that have “whole” in the first ingredient. Also, keep trying the bread and rice. Sometimes it helps to use it in different ways such as whole-wheat bread for French toast or homemade croutons, or use the rice in soup, where the difference might not be as noticeable.
The last one-fourth of the plate should be filled with lean protein, such as beans or dried peas (great for more fiber), lean beef, turkey, chicken, pork, eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, seafood or Peeps (just kidding; even though they look like rabbits, they aren’t a good source of protein). A 2-year-old needs about two ounces of protein a day (an egg is equal to ounce ounce, as is ½ cup beans, a three-ounce serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards), and a 14-year-old needs five to six ounces a day.
Lastly, balance out the meal with low-fat dairy, such as low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt, cheese or a fortified soy beverage. One way to help your children get the two to three cups needed is to have milk with meals, water between.
Personalize the healthful eating plan by finding foods for each section of the plate that fit you and your children’s culture and food preferences. By choosing foods for these sections that are high in nutrients most of the time, you can include the possibly less-healthful favorites and still help your children hop on the road to good health.
Andrea Nikolai is a registered dietitian at Washington Pediatric. She may be reached by calling 252-946-4134.