Handing down the Genes. Part 3 (of 3)

This is the third – and final – installment of our three-part series “Handing Down the Genes.”  Part III: “Nutrition and Exercise Tips”

Small changes in food choices and daily activity can make a big difference in children’s health – and their risk for type 2 diabetes. Here are some ways to get started.

  • Lose the juice. Advertising makes it easy to think fruit juice is good for kids – it’s organic, it has vitamins, it’s made from fruit, after all. What the advertisements don’t tell you is that it’s also packed with sugar and has none of the fiber found in whole fruit. Try providing half an orange with breakfast instead of orange juice.
  • Skip the drive-through. A regular soda, fries, and a burger at a fast-food chain can include three days’ worth of sodium, fat, and sugar for an adult. Prepare extra food on weekends so that when you’re in a hurry for a meal, turning to fast food isn’t your first instinct. Scrambled eggs and cheese are also a fast, easy alternative.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy. The number of daily servings needed varies with age and sex. See www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid for recommendations.
  • Choose high-fiber chips, crackers, and breads. Fiber carbs don’t raise blood sugar, and they make people feel full, so they eat less. Fresh fruits and vegetables also contain lots of fiber. Most Americans eat less than half the fiber they need each day (28-35 grams).
  • Read the fine print on bread labels. Whole-grain wheat bread is best, but names like “Honey Wheat” can be deceiving. Bread that’s truly whole grain will have four or more grams of fiber per serving and the word “whole” in the first ingredient.
  • Look for short ingredient lists. Six ingredients or fewer are best. Studies have shown that a diet high in starchy, processed food, which may contain 20 to 40 ingredients – many of them additives and preservatives that extend shelf life – increase risk for diabetes, insulin resistance, cancer, and other diseases.
  • Offer nutritious snacks that kids like. Examples include apple or banana slices with three or four high-fiber crackers (Nabisco Fiber Selects are good) and peanut butter; celery and peanut butter; carrots with ranch dressing; and fruit with string cheese. Make it fun by letting kids create a smiley face using whole-grain bread, a banana halved length-wise, and raisins.
  • Ditch the diet soda. Studies show that people tend to overeat when they drink diet soda. Artificial sweeteners in diet drinks trick the brain into thinking that the body is getting calories. When it doesn’t, hunger increases.
  • Ensure that kids get 30 minutes of exercise daily. Activities can include organized sports, driveway basketball, playing Frisbee with the family dog, riding a bike, or jumping on a trampoline. If it’s not safe for your children to be outside after school while you’re at work, find an after-school program that offers physical activities or look for ways they can be active indoors. If Wii Fit isn’t in the budget, have them take the stairs, jump rope, or play games.
  • Take a walk after dinner. This can be a new family tradition, and it will count toward the 30 minutes of exercise.
  • Limit TV and computer time (combined) to two hours/day. The more time a child spends in front of a screen, the more likely he/she is to gain weight. Reading a book or listening to music is better than watching TV because commercials indirectly tell kids to eat.

Tips provided by Nancy Heinrich, founder of Growing Healthy Kids; Gabriella Grinstein, pediatric endocrinologist; and Susan Dopart, registered dietitian and exercise physiologist. For more snack and meal ideas, see Dopart’s blog at http://www.susandopart.com/blog.

Get kids involved

Enlisting kids in an effort to improve your family’s eating habits can be helpful to you and fun and educational for them.

Susan Dopart, registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in Santa Monica, California, says that she encourages parents to take children to the grocery store and teach them to read labels. “Kids are more savvy than most people think,” Dopart says. “They’re curious and interested. They’ll say things like, ‘Mom, do you know how many carbohydrates are in this?'”

When teaching label reading, tell kids to look at ingredient lists. Foods with six or fewer ingredients and the word “whole” in the first listing are ideal, Dopart says. Have them look for names of sugar – glucose, sucrose, and maltose, for instance. Foods that contain a lot of them probably have a high sugar content. Then evaluate the nutrition label for the amount of carbohydrates, protein, trans fats, and sodium, paying attention to the serving size and the percent daily values.

“Tell kids what to look for, then send them off on an expedition,” says Nancy Heinrich, an epidemiologist specializing in diabetes and the founder of the Vero Beach, Florida-based Growing Healthy Kids. Evaluate the foods you normally buy, she says, then mount a rescue mission based on healthier criteria. For instance, when she was teaching her son about trans fats, she asked him to find a chip that didn’t have the term “partially hydrogenated” in its ingredients.

“Make a game out of it,” Heinrich advises. “You have to make it fun to learn.”

You also can find nutrition-related games and activities for kids ages six to 11 at http://www.mypyramid.gov/kids.

Grandparents as health educators

Having a grandparent with type 2 diabetes also increases a child’s risk of becoming insulin resistant. As a grandparent with the disease, you can utilize the special bond you have with your grandchildren to perform a new role within your family – that of health educator or champion – says Nancy Heinrich, an epidemiologist specializing in diabetes and the founder of Growing Healthy Kids.

Grandparents are influential figures in kids’ lives, and many would rather spend time with their grandchildren than their children, says Heinrich, who travels the country presenting seminars to parents and grandparents with type 2 diabetes. “I tell them, ‘It is incumbent upon you to know as much as you can about controlling your diabetes so that you can become the teacher your family needs,'” she says. “That’s going to be the key to breaking the cycle of diabetes.”

She advises using some of the time you spend with your grandchildren to educate them about healthy eating and exercise. One way to do that is through scheduling regular family dinners and having children help shop for and prepare food.

“Kids aren’t going to get a diabetes-prevention lesson at school or from their pediatrician,” Heinrich says. “Grandparents’ lives can become that lesson.”