By Vanessa Penberg

Love at First Bite
Love at First Bite

There is a substantial body of research proving that regularly consuming large quantities of sugar negatively affects people’s health and contributes to increased rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, diseases which disproportionately affect people in our community.

Sugar can be particularly harmful to children whose bodies are developing, as it may lead to both health and behavioral issues.  Children whose diets consist of a lot of sugary beverages and other processed sugars (such as candy and cookies) may have a harder time controlling their bodies and energy levels and focusing and learning in school.

Moreover, it has been suggested by pediatricians that babies are even more at risk of sugar having an adverse effect on their behavior, activity level, and ability to learn because the brain undergoes the most rapid growth between the ages of zero and three.  The encouraging news is that children’s bodies are quite resilient and it is possible to reverse some harmful health trajectories just by changing a child’s diet.

A recent New York Times article, which may be found here, featured a study financed by the National Institute of Health and published by the journal Obesity.  This study demonstrated that significantly reducing sugar in obese children’s diets for only 10 days can greatly improve their blood pressure, cholesterol, and other health markers.  The researchers conducting the study removed foods with added sugar from a group of children’s diets, all of whom were black or Hispanic, and replaced them with other types of carbohydrates so that their weight and overall calorie intake remained about the same.

Their findings support the argument that all calories are not created equal.  They suggest that calories from sugar are especially likely to contribute to Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases, which are on the rise in children.  The study’s lead author, Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, stated, “This paper says we can turn a child’s metabolic health around in 10 days without changing calories and without changing weight – just by taking the added sugars out of their diet.  From a clinical standpoint, from a health care standpoint, that’s very important.”

While in many neighborhoods in Northeast Brooklyn it can often be difficult to find healthy food options, particularly fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables, resources are available.  For example, Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger provides a supermarket style food pantry, community garden, nutrition, cooking, and gardening classes for children and adults, and a multitude of social services, which can greatly benefit the health of the entire family.  Similarly, Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation (NEBHDCo) offers a supermarket style food pantry where much of their produce comes from their neighboring community garden as well as cooking classes in their demonstration kitchen.  Local Farmer’s Markets and Health Bucks provided by the NYC Department of Health are a wonderful way to find and help afford fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables.  Health Bucks are $2 coupons that can be used to purchase produce at farmers’ markets around New York City.

Many markets also accept WIC and EBT and you will receive an additional $2 Health Buck for every $5 you spend with your EBT card, amounting to 40% more for your money!  A list of farmers’ markets in Brooklyn, including their hours and whether they accept EBT can be found here.  Most market’s close at the end of November at which time the Health Bucks expired, but the markets and issuance of Health Bucks will resume in the spring.

Our health and well-being are affected by everything our families do, including what we eat and how active we are.  Eating meals that are good for us as well as exercising can be a part of family activities that help strengthen relationships as well as setting a positive example for our children so that they are more likely to make healthy choices as they get older.  Although making healthy food choices and staying active can be challenging, it is not impossible.

Here are some tips for how to adopt healthy habits that are easy and effective even when time and money are limited:

  1. Reduce sugar intake. Sugar is hidden in everything and goes by many different names so it is important to read labels and be familiar with alternative names for sugar as listed here.
  2. Involve children in meal preparation. Having your children, even the youngest ones, participate in grocery shopping, meal preparation, and table setting is a great way to increase their knowledge of healthy eating as well as provide opportunities to label, count, and improve fine motor and adaptive skills, such as self-care, self-direction and communication.  Furthermore, children are more likely to eat foods they help prepare.

Healthy Role Play
  1. Bring back family meals. Meals are about much more than food.  They are a time to connect with your children and support their overall development.  Talking with your child during meals can help strengthen family relationships.  It is best to turn off the TV at mealtime and try to put away phones, as these can distract children from eating and takes time away from talking and bonding as a family.
  2. Exercise as a family. This can mean taking a walk around the neighborhood, turning the music up and dancing it out, playing a vigorous game of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes or jumping jacks, or volunteering in a community garden.

You can find more helpful tips on how to adopt healthier habits as a family here.

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