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So Long, Soda...Hello, Fruit

Q: What if you haven't been serving healthy food all along? How do you make the switch?

Don't feel bad if your meals have been less than perfect so far. It's never too late to start eating well. Until recently, I didn't give good nutrition nearly enough thought. Then I was diagnosed with colon cancer. During my recovery, my doctor stressed the importance of good nutrition to help me feel better faster. My wife and I started to read about the benefits of healthy eating, and we slowly changed our ways.

The key is to take it a little bit at a time. In our house, we started our new regime by eliminating what I call the terrible three: partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), high-fructose corn syrup, and any additives with numbers attached, such as red dye #40. If you do the same, you're 90 percent done with dejunking your family's diet.

That process got all of us reading labels more carefully. Trips to the grocery store, with kids in tow, yielded flavored seltzers instead of soda, 100 percent juice instead of juice drinks, plain yogurt in place of the kind with added sweetener, and trans fat-free crackers. When my kids discovered they weren't really giving anything up, it made the changes easier. Hot dogs? Sure. Just buy the ones without nitrates. Hamburgers? Why not? As long as you buy lean beef. And serve both on whole wheat buns, which often have more flavor than the white-flour varieties anyway.

Your tween is old enough to understand that partially hydrogenated oils can clog your arteries or that sweetened beverages can make the body produce an excess of insulin that may lead to diabetes and obesity. My 17-year-old has even started setting a good example for his peers. The other day, we stopped at a concession stand for a snack and got into a discussion about which potato chips to buy. (Yes, he does have the occasional bag of chips.)

We were looking for a brand without trans fats. The boy behind the counter overheard our conversation and peppered us with questions. "I've been selling this stuff for a year," he said, "but I never really knew what was in it." Give your kids the facts and before you know it, they'll be reading the labels more than you do.

Q: What diet-related health problems do you see most among older kids?

We've all read about skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol in children and adolescents. I see plenty of proof of those alarming trends every day in my practice. But the most surprising thing I've noticed is the link between a bad diet and kids diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.

Recently, I had a mom come in with her 12-year-old son because the school told her that he has ADD. I started to take a medical history, and I asked what her son eats for breakfast. She said, "Usually sugary cereal, or sometimes we'll stop at Starbucks and he'll have a donut." Whether or not her son has an attention deficit problem, there's no way he can do his best work with a breakfast like that. So the mom made some adjustments. Getting up a half hour earlier to scramble some eggs and toast some bread was an effort. But her son managed to turn his performance around. Is he the best student in the class? No, but his teachers have noticed that he focuses better and is improving. A child's brain is developing even well into adolescence, and he needs the right kind of food to help it work its best.

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