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Learn about the five key nutrients for kids that help them stay focused, boost their energy, and grow strong. Starting your kids on these foods early will help ensure a lifetime of healthy eating.
By labeling carrots "x-ray vision carrots," preschoolers ate nearly twice as much of the food as they did on days when the veggies were called plain old "carrots," per findings from a 2009 Cornell University research study of 186 4-year-olds. Moreover, the children continued to eat about 50 percent more carrots even on subsequent days when they were no longer labeled, suggesting a lingering effect.
The takeaway? Instead of trying to get kids to eat healthier foods by substituting fruit for cookies, "children can be presented healthy and unhealthy items and be led to willingly choose the good," wrote the study authors, Cornell University marketing professor Brian Wansink and behavioral economist David Just, in the journal Choices.
So invite the kids to eat their spinach like Popeye -- not because it will give them superhuman strength, but because the leafy vegetable contains iron, which will help them maintain their energy throughout the day. And beyond that, getting them to make the right choices early will set them on an important path for lifelong health.
"'Power' foods are really about getting back to basics," explains Karen Ansel, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a nutritionist in Syosset, NY. "It's about eating whole foods and lots of different kinds." According to a 2007 report by the U.S. Surgeon General, overweight and obese children are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and have risk factors for heart disease and obesity as adults. "You have this golden opportunity to make them well-adjusted eaters so that they don't end up being adults who only eat a few foods and then have all kinds of problems with their weight and chronic disease," Ansel says.
So whether you call them "x-ray carrots" or mash them up and hide them in the meatloaf, make sure carrots and other nourishing foods are foremost in your family's meal plan. Here, five key nutrients that pack "super" properties to help your kids stay focused, have enough energy, and grow strong.
IRON's Superpowers: Focus, focus, focus!
Iron forms hemoglobin, which is vital for carrying oxygen throughout the body and is crucial for brain power, staying focused, and mental and physical energy. When kids don't have enough iron, they may feel tired, have trouble concentrating, and they may not be able to perform their best in school or on the field.
Where to get it: lean meat like chicken and fish (shrimp and salmon are good choices), beans, dark green vegetables, and whole grain, iron-fortified cereals
FIBER's Superpowers: Sustained energy -- and the power to resist sugary snacks!
Fiber helps maintain a healthy digestive system and keeps the stomach feeling full longer. Kids who eat fiber are less likely to overeat and snack on unhealthy foods. According to a 2010 survey published by the American Dietetic Association Foundation, a significant percentage of children aren't eating breakfast or dinner but are snacking instead. Fiber is also important for maintaining energy during a jam-packed day of classes and after-school activities and is vital for sports performance.
Where to get it: Fiber found in whole grains should be the foundation of a healthy diet. Aim for two to three grams in each serving. Look for foods with complex carbohydrates such as whole grain cereals, breads, pastas, brown rice, beans, and nuts; fruits like raspberries, pears, and apples; and veggies like artichokes, peas, and broccoli. Your kids may not like all foods with whole grains, so focus on the ones they will eat or get creative with recipes by adding cheese or a little butter for flavor.
MAGNESIUM's Superpower: Endurance!
Magnesium is a metal that the body uses for more than 300 metabolic reactions. When kids are deficient in magnesium, their bodies are unable to produce enough energy to make it through the day. Magnesium is also important for a healthy heart and strong bones.
Where to get it: green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts
POTASSIUM's Superpower: Balance!
Potassium is a mineral that maintains fluid balance in the body and is necessary for healthy blood presssure because it offsets the effects of sodium. With kids eating less fruits and vegetables, many are deficient in this power nutrient. According to a 2009 report by the Centers for Disease Control, only 22.3 percent of high school students eat fruits and vegetables five or more times a day.
Where to get it: fruits like bananas, cantaloupe, prunes, and watermelon, as well as orange juice; vegetables such as broccoli, potatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, and winter squash
CALCIUM's Superpowers: "Indestructible" bones!
Calcium is a vitamin that builds strong bones. With the wide selection of sodas, sweetened drinks, and sports drinks (that often make false or iffy health claims), kids are drinking less milk than ever before, a trend that can impact their bone health and physical development. Milk is also a significant source of protein, which is important for growth and sports performance.
Where to get it: Aim for three to four glasses of lowfat milk and dairy products like lowfat yogurt and cheese. Calcium-fortified orange juice is also a good source of vitamin D (although the Institute of Medicine increased the recommended vitamin D requirements in late 2010, so speak with a pediatrician about the possibility of a vitamin supplement).
Although it's important for kids to eat a variety of whole foods, don't worry if there are certain foods your kids refuse to eat. "Kids go through tons of stages, and it's totally normal for them not to be interested in certain foods at certain times," explains Ansel. Being a healthy eater also consists of the occasional treat. "If you become overly restrictive, you're not going to end up with a healthy eater because your child is going to be so focused on what they're not having that everyone else is."
Also see: 'Power' Drinks and Supplements: Are They Harmful to Kids?
Easy Meals for Busy Moms: How to Fit Healthy Eating into Your Family's Hectic Schedule
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