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Kids Need Carbs!

I was sitting at dinner last night with my niece, her two-year-old enjoying a roll beside her.  She said, “He eats six times a day, mostly carbs.” At a healthy weight, he needs plenty of high energy foods to maintain his tremendous growth and intense activity level.  The amount of food he eats at one time is small except for one meal per day when he chooses to eat as much as an older child would want.  His parents don’t force him to clean his plate and they acknowledge the fact that he needed to decide which foods he would eat of the mostly healthy choices he was offered. I was so pleased that they were able to separate adult notions about dieting, and the evils of carbohydrates, from the needs of their growing, active little boy.

So many times, school-aged kids tell me that carbs are bad because adult family members are following low carb diets to lose weight. Carbohydrates fuel the power plant in our bodies, and the brain prefers carbs to any other fuel source. Not only do children need carbs to fuel growth and activity, they need glucose to feed the development and activity of their brains. Sometimes I think package labels do more harm than good.  Even adults who aren’t “carb phobic”, read a label, see more that 5 grams of sugar, and go ballistic.

Some sources of carbs are better than others, but even small amounts of sugar and refined grains fit in the diet of kids. Milk and yogurt provide some exceptional carbs, mostly in the form of milk sugar, along with a healthy dose of protein. Although most of the carbs in fruit are sugar, fruit offers so many nutrients along with the fuel, it remains an excellent choice. As it turns out, most starchy vegetables are fairly low in sugar, but they may not be as nutrient rich as fruit. Potatoes, peas and corn are still good sources of carbohydrates, although squash, sweet potatoes, and beans are better sources. And then, there are the grains, the carbs that have taken the biggest hit in the anti-carb media campaigns.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that you make at least half of your grains whole, and the new MyPlate which replaced the Food Guide Pyramid still allocates over ¼ of the plate to grains.  Why? Grains are mostly carbohydrate, plenty of fuel and the optimum brain food.  If the grain is whole, it contributes a major portion of your daily fiber requirement, something that tends to be lacking from the average child’s diet.  So serve up the brown rice, whole grain breads, whole grain pasta, and oatmeal, or add whole grains to the foods you prepare. If you feel compelled to avoid carbohydrates, consider eating smaller portions of them, rather than cutting them our altogether. If you serve them and don’t eat them, you are still influencing your child to avoid a valuable nutrient.  Children model your words and your behavior.

If someone in your household is gluten intolerant, allergic to wheat, or has celiac, there are still many grains that can be enjoyed without harm.  I learned recently that our local bakery is experimenting with “old world” grains like amaranth, millet and quinoa and sweetening with rice syrup rather than corn, because they realize that there is a market for such products. Cereal producers are increasing the amount of whole grain in their popular kids cereals; still not the best choice, but it’s a start in the right direction.  If consumers demand more whole grains, the industry will eventually comply.  That is how all the “carb smart” foods filled the grocery shelves in the first place, a happy day for the sugar substitute industry.  That is a topic of a future blog though.

I just finished one of my favorite whole grain snacks, popcorn, and now I need to finish this article too!  Are your kids carb feasters? What are your family favorite whole grains? 

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