Friday, May 29, 2009

Study-Parents have little influence on children's eating habits

Image courtesy of

Here is the press release right from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (from

New study indicates that parents' influence on children's eating habits is small

The popular belief that healthy eating starts at home and that parents' dietary choices help children establish their nutritional beliefs and behaviors may need rethinking, according to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. An examination of dietary intakes and patterns among U.S. families found that the resemblance between children's and their parents' eating habits is weak. The results are published in the May 25, 2009, issue of Social Science and Medicine.

"Child-parent dietary resemblance in the U.S. is relatively weak, and varies by nutrients and food groups and by the types of parent-child dyads and social demographic characteristics such as age, gender and family income," said Youfa Wang, MD, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor with the Bloomberg School's Center for Human Nutrition. "When looking at overall diet quality, parent-child correlation in healthy eating index score was similar for both younger and older children. To our knowledge, this is the first such study that examined the similarities between children's and their parents' dietary intakes in the United States based on nationally representative data. Our findings indicate that factors other than family and parental eating behaviors may play an important role in affecting American children's dietary intakes."

Researchers examined data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals, a nationally representative multi-stage sample of 16,103 people containing information about dietary intake, socioeconomic, demographic and health parameters surveyed from 1994 to 1996. Average dietary intake and dietary quality indicators were assessed using two 24-hour dietary recalls provided by study participants. Researchers also assessed the overall quality of the participating children's and their parents' diets based on the USDA 2005 Health Eating Index (HEI) along with a number of other covariates. They found that the correlations between children's and their parents' HEI scores ranged from 0.26 to 0.29 across various child-parent dyads such as mother-daughter and father-son; for total energy intake they were 0.14 to 0.29, and for fat intake, -0.04 to 0.28. The range of the correlation measure is between -1 and 1, while 0 means no resemblance and 1 indicates a perfect resemblance. The researchers also found some differences in the resemblance between different types of child-parent dyads and nutrient intakes, and by children's age and family income.

"Factors other than parental eating behaviors such as community and school, food environment, peer influence, television viewing, as well as individual factors such as self-image and self-esteem seem to play an important role in young people's dietary intake," said May A. Beydoun, PhD, co-author of the study and a former postdoctoral research fellow at the Bloomberg School.

"Our findings have a number of important public health implications. In particular, the overall weak to moderate parent-child resemblance in food groups, nutrients and healthy eating index scores suggest that interventions targeting parents could have only a moderate effect on improving their children's diet. Nevertheless, based on our findings stratified by population groups, for interventions targeting parents, those would be more effective when targeted at mothers, minority groups, and as early as possible in childhood. We suspect that the child-parent resemblance in dietary intake may have become weaker over time, due to the growing influence of other factors outside of the family," said Wang.

Ok, you know I'm going to offer my 2c, and here it is. This is NOT an excuse for parents to get (even more) lazy about feeding their kids, because "it doesn't matter anyway." I'm actually quite disappointed in the title of this press release, which may be the only part of the report that parents read. And what parent hearing this news wouldn't throw up his/her hands in disgust after years of trying to impart positive nutrition habits in the kids?

And the study says that "child-parent dietary resemblance is relatively weak." Well, isn't that to be expected? Children are *supposed* to eat differently than adults, in order to support healthy growth and development.

When I serve dinner, my plate looks different than my son's. We might all have a veggie burger (for example, last night I made broccoli-almond patties) and salad. My plate will have 5 times more salad than my son's -- he's THREE! His stomach is a fraction of the size of mine, which means that he eats less at every meal. It also means that requires a higher proportion of calorie dense food than I, or else the poor kid would be hungry every other hour. The nutrient profile will not be all that similar, but we still eat the same things. I know we're not THAT unconventional!

I think if different parameters were studied, such as the actual types of foods consumed (versus what they did: nutrients, food groups, and diet quality) food choice behaviors, we would see a much more positive correlation beween parents' and kids' eating habits.

Furthermore, the researchers did not report the differences between parents who have nutritious diets and parents who have poor diets. I can't know but I suspect that there is a HIGHER correlation in parent-child behaviors among the junk food group than the health food group. Which would mean that even if kids aren't eating as healthfully as their parents, the ones with parents who eat crap all day are more likely to do the same. Kids don't usually choose HEALTHIER foods than their parents, so no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you look at the study, the main point is that external influences are playing a larger role than they used to, with regard to eating habits. Well, of course. It's no secret that our society has shifted, that families eat fewer meals together, that more people eat "on the go," and the power of junk-food advertising to children. This does NOT mean that parents can't have a very significant effect on their children's eating habits.

As a clinical outpatient dietitian years ago, I routinely saw children raised in traditional Indian homes (most were vegetarian). These kids ate what their parents ate: vegetable curries, dahl (lentils), chapati, rice, yogurt. Sure they ate chips and things, but the bulk of the foods they eat strongly mimic that of their parents. I also saw families where parents ate one way and kids another. It's just easier to make a box of mac and cheese for the kids while the parent eats a Lean Cuisine. That's the way many families operate... and it rarely has to do with nutrition. This could be a topic for a whole other post, but it's been shown that working parents give their kids less-than-optimal foods for reasons other than nutrition: guilt from being at work all day (so compensate by giving kids favorite foods), time (it's easier to pick up a Happy Meal than to cook a stir fry), control/behavior issues (parent at end of rope; quash the complaining/whining with comfort food), and degredation of values (in the 50's, you ate with your family and had a balanced meal. That's just how it was. That value is gone among most families).

Back to topic... again, these findings do not indicate that parents are powerless over influencing their kids to eat right.

Most of my readers are vegetarians or vegans, and I know some of you are parents. Do you really believe for a second that your child eats significantly more meat than you? Of COURSE the parent's influence is a strong factor!

I welcome your comments please!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vegan Summer Recipes

Summer is here, and that means summer food. Picnics, Memorial Day, July 4th, cookouts, graduation celebrations, reunions, and backyard parties dominate the culinary scene. For most Americans, that means grilled meats and mayonnaise-laden salads. But a growing number of folks (vegetarians and non-vegetarians) are appreciating the healthfulness and subtle flavors of lighter, fresher foods like grilled vegetables, bean salads, dishes based on raw vegetables and fruits, and light whole grain dishes.

This potato salad pictured here is one of my favorite summertime treats. And people never guess that it's vegan.

Dina's Picnic Potato Salad

  • 3 lbs small red potatoes, scrubbed and rough spots removed (or peeled)
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped red onions
  • 1 scant cup vegan mayo
  • 2 tbsp mustard
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • juice of 1/2 large lemon
  • 2 tablespoons sweet relish (finally, a way to use all that relish!)
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • sea salt to taste
Cut the potatoes into chunks a bit larger than bite-size. Boil the potatoes while you chop the veggies.

In a small bowl, whisk together the mayo, mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, relish, and paprika. When the potatoes are tender (don't overcook!), rinse well in cold water. When they're cooled, add dressing and toss well. Add the veggies. Salt to taste.

Lemony Buckwheat Noodles with Tempeh
(sorry I forgot to take a picture!)

This recipe was something of an accident; I had the tempeh in the fridge and I sort of threw together leftovers to complete the meal.

  • 8 oz buckwheat noodles, cooked, drained, and rinsed well with very cold water
  • 1 package Tofurky brand marinated lemon pepper tempeh OR 1 package Lightlife brand "tempehtations" zesty lemon tempeh
  • Juice of 1/2 large lemon
  • 1 small onion (Vidalia if available), chopped
  • 1/4 - 1/3 cup olive oil, divided
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, steamed
  • 2 large carrots, 1/4" thick cut on the diagonal, steamed
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • freshly ground sea salt to taste
Time-saver: throw the broccoli and carrots into the cooking pasta water when noodles are almost done, rather than steaming them.

While pasta cooks, saute the onion in 1 tbsp of the olive oil until soft. Add the broccoli and carrots and saute until crisp-tender. In a big bowl, toss veggies with the cooled noodles. Add tempeh and toss again. Make sure you scrape the sauce (from the tempeh package) into your bowl--it's part of the dressing! Add remaining olive oil, lemon juice, and parsley and toss with two big forks until the dressing is well-dispersed. Season with salt and serve.

This recipe is so versatile; use whatever vegetables you'd like.

Tofu Salad
This is a crunchier, healthier rendition of the egg salad you might remember from days past.

  • 1 lb firm tofu, water pressed out (my secret: place tofu in a huge soup pot. Cover with a plate. Place your tea kettle, filled to the top with water, on the plate. Dump the water from the bottom of the pot every few minutes (about an hour total) until the tofu is dry.
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 small dill pickle, chopped and drained well
  • 1/2 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1/3 cup soy mayo
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup diced celery
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
Press tofu as directed, or your own way. Crumble in a bowl with a fork. Add turmeric and toss around until uniformly yellow. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Add to tofu. Mix well and eat. I love this in a romaine lettuce wrap!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Going Meat Free one day a week (at least)

Image poached from without permission

Check out this article from CNN! Hooray for Belgium (which has an amazing populations of vegans; I had the honor of speaking at a vegetarian conference there a few years back).

So, it's Thursdays in Ghent, and Mondays in the US. I sure hope that Ghent has better luck than the US in promoting it.

Here's the Meatless Monday campaign; have you ever heard of it?

It's noteworthy that the Ghent effort focuses not only on the health consequences of eating meat, but the environmental ones as well. Americans' awareness of the link between our food choices and the environment are increasing but are still behind the times.

Meatless Monday, a non-profit organization working in association with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a national public health campaign designed to help Americans prevent four of the leading causes of premature death: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. The goal of the campaign is to reduce the consumption of saturated fat in America by at least fifteen percent by 2010; its main efforts aim at encouraging people to be moderate in their eating and meal planning. Twenty-eight other public health schools across the country also support the campaign, which provides tools and resources to help Americans cut the saturated fat once a week. The effort also works towards helping people make other healthy lifestyle choices beyond just Monday.

The Meatless Monday campaign is not an anti-meat crusade or a “go vegetarian” message. Interestingly, the eschewal of the word “vegetarian” is rather absolute; the V word makes hardly an appearance on the campaign’s web site at all, in spite of the term “meatless” in the campaign title.

According to the campaign’s description, “meatless” means no beef, pork, poultry, and full-fat dairy products. Fish is acceptable, but a warning for pregnant women and women of child-bearing age is included.

The campaign also encourages other positive behaviors such as increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, not smoking, and exercising at least 30 minutes a day.

Meatless Monday is not about becoming a vegetarian one day a week; it is about cutting saturated fat significantly on that one day (by eliminating its major food sources), which will hopefully perpetuate a healthful message for the remainder of the week that eating a diet low in saturated fat is not only good for us, but that it’s not difficult and can be delicious too. But a rose by any other name smells just as sweet; if all Americans went meatless (and chose wisely too -- we're not talking about eating junk all day in place of meat) one day a week, billions of animals would be saved per year, and you can bet your booty it would make a difference in people's health.

According to researchers, the average person who cuts out meat and high-fat dairy products one day a week will reduce his or her consumption of saturated fat by 15%. (That's the amount recommended by the American Heart Association, Healthy People 2010, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the USDA.) Thus, if people could commit to changing their less-than-stellar eating habits just once a week, it could mean a notable change in health outcomes.

Some experts may argue that once a week is not enough; why not maximize health benefits by significantly reducing saturated fat and other harmful components, every day of the week? And what about emphasizing the health-supporting foods, such as whole grains, legumes, and fresh produce? According to the American Dietetic Association's position paper on vegetarian diets, “…appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” But this statement is based on studies of healthy vegetarians who avoid meat over many years, not once a week.

“Meatless Mondays are a wonderful starting place,” says Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group and co-author of the ADA’s position paper as well as The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications (2nd ed., Jones and Bartlett, 2004). “Ideally, as people get used to eliminating meat one day a week, they'll realize that meat is not a dietary essential and will move closer and closer to a vegetarian diet.”

However, one of the reasons for the success of the Meatless Mondays campaign is that it does not prescribe a vegetarian diet; unfortunately, most people are not willing to commit to this level of change. It is a game of compromise: one meatless day a week is manageable and comes with measurable health advantages; 7 days a week may turn people off to making healthy changes altogether.

But those who wish for significant disease reduction risk (particularly those attempting to reverse heart disease and related conditions) may need to take a step further for maximum benefit. “In terms of health advantages, certainly avoiding meat and eating more dried beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables one day a week is better than nothing, but I wouldn't expect to see the same health benefits that are seen in long-term vegetarians who eat this way on a daily basis,” notes Mangels. And I agree, of course.

Why Mondays, you ask? When public health experts designed the Meatless Monday campaign, they recognized the fact that adding a time factor to a message helps people to change their behavior. And Meatless Wednesday just doesn’t have the same appeal. In addition to the memorable alliteration, of course Mondays are traditionally the “start healthy eating” day. We'll have to see how Thursdays work out for Ghent.

Check out the site; there is some good info on there and nice recipes (many of which are either vegan or veganizable).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Recipes from fellow bloggers -- on my list!

I've been finding some great original recipes posted by fellow bloggers! These are on my To-Try list. Check these out:

Thanks folks -- you all make a vegan lifestyle healthy and exciting!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Raising the Bar on Nutrition Bars

Last Friday I attended the New York State Dietetic Association's Annual Meeting, which featured several food, beverage, and pharmaceutical exhibitors. One of the exhibitors, Kardea Nutrition, was giving out samples of a nutrition bar designed for "natural cholesterol management." I glanced over but didn't check it out; typically bars like this are made of cheap sweeteners, isolated fiber, and vitamins.

Fortunately, the founder of the company, Rob Leighton, stopped at my booth (the Vegetarian Nutrition and Nutrition in Complementary Care Dietetic Practice Groups) and asked me to try a sample. "They're vegan," he told me. Even so, I was wary at first because most bars made up of functional foods (specialty ingredients designed to manage a health issue) are kind of gross. But I tried one and was completely amazed. (Click on the image above to see the details of the bar.) Then I tried the other flavors and was totally blown away. Really. The founder went on to tell me that his mission was to create nutrition bars with unique and scrumptious flavor profiles, based primarily on whole foods and natural ingredients, that people managing their cholesterol could enjoy.

Check out these flavors!

  • Chai Spice: the real cardamom and clove flavors linger on the tongue
  • Banana Walnut: reminiscent of a thick, rich slice of homemade banana bread
  • Cranberry Almond: the perfect balance of sweet and tart, chewy and crunchy
  • Lemon Ginger: with REAL lemon zest and ginger -- the flavors literally pop!

Yesterday DH and I bought 2 of every flavor at Whole Foods! I got the high-five approval from him as well as from my pre-schooler.

Each bar has 150 calories, 5 grams of fat (mostly from real almonds and canola or sunflower oil)between 9 and 11 grams of sugar (depending on the flavor), 7 grams of fiber, 5 grams of soluble fiber, and less than 100 milligrams of sodium. They each contain 7 grams of protein, primarily from almonds, soy protein, and brown rice protein. They are sweetened primarily with whole foods (bananas, cranberries, etc.), brown rice syrup, agave nectar, and molasses. They also have psyllium husk, chicory root fiber, and acacia fiber, natural ingredients known to promote cholesterol health.

Disclaimer -- two of the flavors, lemon ginger and cranberry almond are not listed as vegan because they contain an ingredient (lemon zest) that is made with sugar (the company cannot find a supplier of pure zest at this time). Because it could not be determined with 100% certainty that the sugar in this ingredient was not processed with bone char, the company did the responsible thing and listed them as vegetarian but not vegan. My take on that? One, the amount of sugar that ends up in a bar is miniscule; it's just a carrier for a flavoring. Two, these days, most sugar is manufactured without the use of bone char, so there's a good chance it may be purely vegan anyway. How far we take our veganism is an individual choice; the way I see it is, the company goes out of its way to use whole foods and vegan ingredients, and even declines to label them as "vegan" because of the undetermined source of the sugar, and that's a company I'm going to support.

Ok, I know. You may be thinking, "But I don't need to reduce my cholesterol. Why would I want these bars?" I had the same thought. I even brought up this question to the founder. After all, these bars are so delicious, but ANYONE can enjoy them, not just folks who need to closely monitor their cholesterol.

Well, here's how I see it. Reasonably healthy and moderately processed foods such as this can have a place in a healthful diet. (They're not completely processed; they also have whole foods in them, like nuts and fruits.) These bars are not designed to replace a healthy diet. A healthy diet will always consist primarily of vegetables, whole grains, beans/nuts/seeds, and fruits. These bars are a tasty and nutritious compromise when you'd like a quick and easy snack, and they support healthy cholesterol levels. Those of us with normal cholesterol will not see a dangerous plummet with these bars, just as we wouldn't see it with daily inclusion of oatmeal (known to lower cholesterol). We all have choices. If you're hankering for an in-between-meal snack, this bar is reasonable for its nutrition profile (for most people, 100-200 calories is ideal between meals, and it's got a healthy dose of fiber and protein) and exceptionally yummy flavor.