How to Help Your Kids Avoid Dangerous Diet Fads

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It seems like the internet goes crazy over a new diet fad every few months. Even if you generally avoid fads, some of these diets may sound good enough to try with your family. Your kids, who may be more influenced by what they hear and read, also can get pulled into diet fads.

With so much conflicting information out there, how do you help your kids determine what’s helpful and what’s hype? Pediatric dietitian Jennifer Willoughby, RD, CSP, LD, offers some answers.

For one thing, she says watch out for diets that cut out an entire food group or rely on patented powders or pills. This is never the right answer. “You shouldn’t have to starve and you shouldn’t have to spend a bunch of money on special pills or supplements for a healthy diet,” she says.

On the other hand, eating a variety of foods from all food groups while working to eliminate ingredients with no nutritional benefit — such as trans fats and added sugars — is a good way to go, she says.

Fats: not your worst enemy

The worst thing about fad diets is that many of them promote restrictions of individual foods, protein, fat or calories, Ms. Willoughby says.

For example, a fat-free diet implies that all fat is harmful. But there are beneficial fats that promote satiety (keeping you feeling full) and nutrient absorption in the body. Children (and adults) need to incorporate them into their diet.

You can find healthy doses of fat in a variety of food, including:

For kids, these fats are necessary for fueling energy, growth and brain development, Ms. Willoughby says.

“By restricting a certain food group, you’re removing key nutrients important for your child’s growth,” she says. “Not only can this lead to poor growth trends, you’re also putting your child at risk for nutrient deficiencies and caloric insufficiencies.”

Encourage your kids to eat fruit and vegetables — but generally more vegetables than fruit. Round out their diet with a healthy balance of carbohydrates, protein and dairy sources during meals.

Psychological aspects of food

Fad diets are unhealthy from a psychological point of view as well. Restrictive diets may foster eating disorders.

“It’s not just about nutrition,” Ms. Willoughby says. “When you teach kids to focus too much on certain foods or restrict things, you place a negative connotation on foods in general.”

This may put your children at risk for potential disordered eating behaviors. They may experience shame when they eat something they’re not supposed to have.

“That can snowball and affect them later in life,” she says. “No child should have to feel badly about what they are eating.”

5 tips for smarter eating

Here are steps to empower your kids when it comes to nutrition.

1. Set a good example

Children are easily influenced by external factors — and that includes the adults in their lives. So if you’re not eating your fruits and vegetables, you can’t expect your child or teenager to want to eat them.

2. Make the most of teachable moments

Allow your kids to go along when you shop for groceries or visit a farmer’s market. It’s a great way to educate them about how many healthy options there are out there.

Show them how to shop for a diet that is rich and colorful — full of fruits and vegetables, and other healthy foods. Shift the focus away from things they can’t have (or shouldn’t eat very often).

“Kids and teens need to learn which food choices are better to fuel their bodies to have the best success in school, sports and day-to-day activities,” she says. “We want them to develop these good habits now so they make healthy choices as they get older.”

3. Encourage moderation and portion control

It’s not always a good idea to force your kids to clean their plates. Teach them to self-regulate by eating when they are hungry and stopping when they feel full. Encourage them to try everything presented to them, but being part of the “clean plate club” isn’t always necessary.

4. Introduce new foods

This is sometimes a battle, but you don’t want your children to eat only a few foods they like. Encourage them to try new things that provide good fuel for their bodies.

If they want to try something new that’s not as healthy, that’s OK, too. Make it clear that they should limit unhealthy foods, but that they aren’t completely off limits.

5. Stay away from sugar-sweetened drinks

Most kids know that soda is not a healthy choice. But they also should learn to avoid energy drinks and limit fruit juices because of their high sugar content.

Too much sugar can distract your kids from learning at school and fuel hyperactivity later in the day, Ms. Willoughby says.

Encourage healthier options. For example, 4 ounces of fruit juice has as much sugar as a whole piece of fruit. Teach your kids that it makes more sense to drink water and eat the fruit. It offers additional nutrients and fiber the juice just can’t provide.

Try this litmus test

If you’re confused by the current diet landscape, ask yourself: Will this diet help me teach my children to make smart choices that support a complete, well-balanced diet? If the answer is no, probably it’s best to move on. Teach the same method to your kids to help them find their way.

“Healthy eating means having a well-balanced diet focusing on whole and natural foods, but getting those foods from all food groups,” Ms. Willoughby says.

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