Few parents set out to feed their kids the unhealthy foods that may contribute to childhood obesity. But experts say many of the deceptively healthy foods parents toss in their carts should be left on the grocery store shelves.
So WalletPop sat down with registered dietician Susan Burke March, MS, RD, LD/N, CDE, author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally to find out what so-called "healthy" foods parents should be wary of buying for their children.
March says this is the equivalent of sprinkling lots of sugar and candy on top of a cup of steamed broccoli. "All the sugar that's in many brands turns something that's full of calcium, protein, vitamin D, and magnesium into dessert." The biggest offenders: yogurt "fun foods."
"Read the labels of yogurt in plastic tubes that are meant to be frozen and thrown into kids' lunchboxes. After the first ingredient, which as hoped for, is milk, come high fructose corn syrup and sugar, artificial flavorings and colors," says March.
A better option: March suggests staying wholesome by staying simple. "Freeze any wholesome real yogurt and put in your kid's knapsack. You'll ditch all the additives and send him to school with a truly healthy treat."
You already know that many kids' cereals are sugary to the extreme, but March says convenience packages of instant oatmeal are no exception. "Read the ingredient label. One teaspoon of sugar equals four grams -- some of the 'maple' or other favors have more than 12 grams per serving."
A better option: Microwave whole oats in a glass dish (following the directions using low-fat milk or water). Stir in a quarter-cup of raisins and, voila, a naturally sweet breakfast.
The front of the package features appealing photos of fresh fruit, words like "100% of the daily value" and make it seem kids are better off drinking juice than water or milk. But March says many juices advertised as "natural" contain artificial sweeteners. "Some contain only fruit juice concentrates, and are little more than sweetened water, enhanced with extra vitamins."
A better option: Pack an orange, an apple or a cup of applesauce. And if you do serve juice, March says go for 100% natural fruit juice, not concentrate, and limit kids to one 8-ounce serving a day.
On the menu at just about any restaurant, March says these are often higher in fat and calories than items on the adult menu. "They're high-sodium and high-fat foods like fried chicken nuggets, fried chicken, cheese pizza or mac 'n cheese -- all foods that have very little nutritional value."
A better option: Insist your kid be able to order a half-size portion of adult foods -- you set the example.
Some labels advertise them as a better-for-you fish, but March says frozen fried fish is fat-laden and loaded with artificial ingredients. "No matter what you call them, fish 'tenders,' 'sticks,' or the like are all battered and fried," she says.
A better option: Grilled or baked fish. "It's easier than frying, and fast, too," says March.
While peanut butter can be a good source of protein and calories, March cautions not all brands are created equal. "Several have sugar, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat," she says. And steer clear of the jars of peanut butter and jelly. They're loaded with high fructose corn syrup, dextrose and other unwelcome additives.
A better option: Look for brands with one or at most two ingredients: peanuts and maybe salt.
Parents concerned about their children's weight look to rice cakes as snacks. But March cautions, "There is little nutritional value in these white rice snacks. No matter how many calories they have, they're empty calories and won't fill kids up," so a child is hungry soon after eating one and back in the cupboards looking for something to eat.
A better option: Whole-wheat pita chips with hummus or peanut butter. To make your own, slice a whole wheat pita into quarters and lightly spray with cooking spray. Bake until lightly crunchy.
The first ingredient listed on cereal bar, granola bar, and breakfast bar packages is usually refined flour (even enriched). Sugar is often second or third. Not only does that make this a fattening meal, it'll have your kid's tummy grumbling in about an hour. "Empty calorie foods like this do not fill a child up. So they wind up eating more than if they would have had a 'real' meal," says March.
A better option: A cup of yogurt with a cup of crunchy low-sugar cereal stirred in.
Once and for all ... there is no fruit in fruit roll-up-type snacks. March says even though the front of the package shows pictures fruit, the ingredients tell the tale. "They're loaded with high fructose corn syrup, sugar, dextrose, artificial flavors, fruit flavors, artificial colors, etc. Nothing but junk," March says.
A better option: An apple.
Just because something is fat-free, March says that doesn't make it calorie-free, or healthy. "When fast food apples come with 'low fat caramel dipping sauce,' the apples are still being served with a 70 calorie portion of low-fat caramel dip. So low-fat doesn't mean low-calorie or low-sugar," says March. And since sugar can turn into fat in the body, fat-free foods that are high in sugar aren't really fat free after all.
A better option: Read the labels and look at the calories and sugar per serving. Although it might feel counterintuitive, fat-free just might be more fattening