Fruits and Veggies Every Day, Keep the Doctor Away

Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, but getting our children to eat the right things can feel like pulling teeth.  What should you do when your son gags at the sight of broccoli, or your daughter reaches for soda and candy instead of fruit?


Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, what should you do if your child visits a local farm and vows never to eat a cow, pig or chicken again? Is it possible for a child to be healthy on a vegetarian diet?



How many fruits and vegetables should my child eat?


According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines, half of our daily diet should consist of fruits and vegetables, combined with smaller portions of grains, protein and dairy.


But a recent study showed that 78 percent of U.S. children ages 2 to 5 aren’t eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables. As they get older, the problem worsens. About 84 percent of kids between 6 and 11 don’t meet the guidelines, while this number grows to 89 percent for children aged 12 to 18.



Why is this so important?


Fruits and veggies contain nutrients that are difficult to find in other food sources, including folate, magnesium, potassium, dietary fiber and vitamins A, C and K.


They reduce the risk of many chronic diseases and are low in calories when prepared without adding fats or sugars – which helps maintain a healthy weight.



Are some better than others?


The most nutrient-rich vegetables are dark green, such as broccoli, spinach, collard and turnip greens. Bright red and orange vegetables such as tomatoes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and red peppers – also tend to have a lot of nutrients.


It’s always best to eat whole fruits or fresh canned, frozen and dried fruits, as opposed to juice, which often contains fewer nutrients and more sugar and other additives.



How can I get my child to eat more fruits and veggies?


Here are a few tips to try:


Serve them when your child is hungry. When your child gets home from school and is ravenous, put out a plate of veggies, such as carrots, bell peppers and cucumbers – along with hummus or another healthy dip.


Encourage your child to try new fruits and veggies. If your child is resistant to trying new foods, implement the “try it first, then you can say no” rule.


Market the health benefits of fruits and veggies using fun kid language. For example, tell your child that carrots will give her “superhero vision” or spinach will make him “strong like Popeye.”


Engage your kids in shopping and cooking. Many children enjoy making their own food choices and helping to prepare meals – and they are often more likely to eat what they select and cook.


Make fruits and vegetables easy to reach. Keep a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter and stock your fridge with chopped-up, easy-to-grab veggies so that when your child goes hunting for a snack, healthy options are readily available.


Find ways to add more fruits and veggies to your child’s favorite meals. Add pureed veggies to quesadillas or cut bananas to hot or cold cereals.


Be a positive role model. Your child is watching everything you do, so be sure to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables as part of your daily diet.



My child wants to be a vegetarian, but I’ve heard many definitions and am not sure what it means. What are the different types of vegetarianism?


Your child may be exploring a vegetarian diet for many reasons, including concern for animals, the environment or his or her own health. People use the term vegetarian to describe a number of diets, but here are a few of the most common types:


  • Vegans eat only food from plant sources.
  •  Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but no meat.
  •  Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy and egg products, but no meat.
  •  Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, but no eggs or meat.
  •  Semi-vegetarians eat poultry or fish, but no red meat.



Is it possible for my child to be healthy as a vegetarian?


The simple answer is yes. In reality, the answer is a bit more complicated. Children can get all the nutrients they need from a vegetarian diet – but only if the diet is well planned and balanced.


This is especially important if the diet doesn’t include dairy and egg products. And you’ll need to adjust the diet to meet the changing nutritional requirements of your child as he or she grows.


A properly planned vegetarian diet is high in fiber and low in fat. This offers many health benefits, including better cardiovascular health, lower blood cholesterol and reduced risk of obesity.


Swati Pandya, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s West Valley Center. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.

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