Parents' Food Fears Make for Unhealthy Family Diets

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 8, 2000 -- When it comes to food, it's fine to feel the fear as long as it's not passed on to your kids, say researchers speaking at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Fima Lifshitz, MD, chief of staff at Miami Children's Hospital, tells WebMD that parents' concerns about high fat and cholesterol should not be used to develop diets for their children. Children, he says, "don't need to go on a low-fat diet and doing so can actually cause harm." Unlike adults, children need to consume fats "in order to develop normally," he adds.

Keith-Thomas Ayood, EdD, RD, agrees. He tells WebMD that parents tend to "pass on their food phobias to children" and outlined several food phobias.

"The first of these I call 'ova-phobia' or fear of eggs," says Ayood, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He says that parents have come to regard eggs as cholesterol bombs waiting to explode in their children's blood vessels, but the reality is very different. "Eggs do have a high level of cholesterol, but this is not a problem for children and probably an egg a day isn't bad for adults either," he says. "More important is the hard fact that eggs are an excellent source of protein and nutrients."

Next on the list, Ayood says, is "lacto-phobia or fear of milk. We have a huge calcium crisis in this country because kids aren't drinking milk." Lifshitz says calcium is crucial during the "first two decades of life because that is when the calcium for bone is laid down." He explains that although the body can maintain calcium, establishing new bone doesn't happen after these first two decades of life.

Furthermore, Ayood says while many consider osteoporosis a bone disease of the elderly, the reality is that osteoporosis begins in childhood. Therefore adequate calcium during childhood is essential to prevent broken hips and spines seen in the elderly.

The third food phobia that parents pass to children is fear of fruits and vegetables. Ayood stresses that "kids should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. People say, oh that's too much, that's too hard, but really that's only about a pint. It would fill a takeout container for wonton soup."

Lifshitz offers another example of fear-driven food choices. "People are afraid of red meat, they are afraid to feed their children steak," he says. But Lifshitz says "a 3 oz serving of flank steak contains all the protein, iron, and zinc that a 10-year-old child needs for a day."

In contrast, he says that using pasta to supply the same protein would require "three servings of pasta and for zinc, you would need seven servings. You know what that adds up to? Obesity."

Lifshitz suggests that Americans look to other countries for useful advice about healthy diets. "In Japan, they recommend eating 30 different food sources a day. Thirty! It sounds like a lot but those of you who like sushi know that if you go to a sushi bar you get all these different foods, but small servings," he says.

Ayood tells parents to use moderation and variety. "For example, try foods of different colors." He also advises getting "children involved in food preparation. Have them cut up the green beans. Who cares if the cuts are uneven?" That involvement, he says, will pay off, as children become more interested in variety.

Finally, Lifshitz advises, "there are no junk foods, just junk diets. If a child eats a piece of chocolate, the child shouldn't feel guilty." He says the problem comes when a diet is either dominated by a single food or arbitrarily eliminates certain foods. "Remember, variety and enjoyment."