Is Your Kid’s Nutrition a Life or Death Matter?

A new study in the Lancet, a major medical journal, led to a lot of headlines when researchers concluded that 20% of deaths around the world could be traced to bad food choices. The study, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, looked at almost 30 years of data from 195 countries. Researchers identified 15 food choices which led to disease and death among adults, calculated the proportion of responsibility each choice had, and figured the number of deaths which could actually be attributed to the food choices.

Their conclusion? 1 in 5 deaths is the result of poor diet. Click To Tweet

The 15 bad food choices

Diet low in:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • legumes
  • whole grains
  • nuts and seeds
  • milk
  • fiber
  • calcium
  • seafood omega-3 fatty acids
  • polyunsaturated fatty acids

Diet high in:

  • red meat
  • processed meat
  • sugar-sweetened beverages
  • trans fatty acids
  • sodium

The research is specifically about adults. But these eating habits are often developed in childhood. The 3,000,000 deaths the study found connected with high salt diets aren’t separate from the habit of having chips or fries with lunch every day in childhood. The 2,000,000 deaths associated with not eating fruit probably didn’t take place among people who got into the habit of eating fruit for snacks when they were kids.

The top causes of diet-related deaths were heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.

Adult eating habits are sometimes the result of careful research and decision making, but they’re more often based on habits we learn in childhood. While the specific food choices on the list are sometimes very specific — do you even know if you’re getting enough polyunsaturated fatty acids? — the overall pattern is no surprise.

We should eat more fiber-rich plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. We should have less processed food, like sodas and fast-food or highly processed meats. Less red meat, more fish, and some attention to the kinds of fat we eat round out the list. Most of us won’t be amazed at this advice. But the new study does suggest that it’s a lot more important to our health than many of us think.

Studies show that kids’ eating habits tend to stick with them as they grow. A study at the University of Minnesota followed 2,500 kids to the age of 15 and then checked back with them when they were adults. Those who developed good eating habits as kids were still more likely to make healthy choices.

Eat more good things

There are some things we should eat less of:

  • salt, which tends to show up in fast food and snacks
  • sugar, especially in sodas
  • processed meats and red meats in general
  • trans fats

But eating more of the right things could be easier than focusing on cutting back on less-healthy foods. Choose eating more nuts as a family healthy eating goal. Kids can get creative about adding walnuts to baked goods, sprinkling pecans in a salad, or jazzing up a stir-fry with peanuts or cashews.

Eating more fruit might be another easy choice. Pick out an unfamiliar new fruit at the supermarket every week, include fruit in desserts, or snack on fruit salad.

When it’s time to cut down on sodas or reduce fast food, you’ll have worked through some fun changes already, and your kids may be ready to cooperate with the more challenging choices.

Recipes and inspiration

Here are some recipes and ideas that can help you move toward healthier food at your house:

Should the Lancet study change your mind about food? The foods to eat more of and foods to eat less of are probably exactly what your pediatrician has already advised. But this large-scale study might make it a little more motivating to keep working toward healthy eating habits for your family.

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