THE BLOG
10/02/2013 04:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Is It Time for Pediatricians to Stop Pushing So Much Cheese?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently released a report card on The Changing American Diet and we didn't do so well: a couple B's, a couple C's and one D.

When it comes to dairy consumption, CSPI gives the American population a C-. Maybe it's time for pediatricians to stop pushing so much cheese. According to CSPI, since 1970, we've gone from eating eight pounds of cheese per person per year to eating 23 pounds per person per year.

I'm not saying that pediatricians are responsible for the American cheese obsession. I'm just saying that things could change if pediatricians would tweak the way they advise parents. After all, habits learned early in life tend to stick around. And, in my experience with helping parents teach their children to eat right, I've learned that pediatricians talk up cheese a lot. It's a good source of calcium. It's a good source of protein. Throw it on some broccoli and your kids are more likely to eat their veggies.

If you're a pediatrician, you probably know what I mean. Cheese is easy to recommend. But what you probably aren't thinking about is how your advice is being used.

I've got news for you. Parents don't take lightly your casual suggestion that they consider serving cheese. They also don't scan those "child-friendly" food lists or sample diets for 2-year olds (that always contain cheese) for ideas about the kinds of foods they might serve from time-to-time. No. Parents take those lists as gospel, digging deep to find items that their kids will eat. Then they serve those foods all the time. After all, they're doctor-approved!

Cheese sticks. Grilled cheese. Cheese quesadillas. Pizza. Macaroni and cheese. Many toddlers I know eat cheese daily. Some eat cheese multiple times throughout the day. And parents think they're doing the right thing: getting enough calcium into their kids.

Yeah, I know kids need to consume calcium. But do they need calcium at any cost? Even if it sets those very kids up for food-related health problems down the road? If you've ever tried to change your own eating habits, then you know it's pretty darn difficult.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, cheese is now the leading source of saturated fat in the American diet. I don't know any pediatrician who wants their patients to develop a cheese habit.

Focusing in on the benefits toddlers gain from eating cheese today is so.... yesterday. We need a new way of thinking about how we feed our toddlers because our current short-term thinking is putting our kids between a rock and a hard place: future health problems or a future struggle to change their eating habits.

What's a better way to handle the calcium question and recommendations about cheese? Talk about cheese in a way that reflects not only nutrition, but habits as well. Explicitly tell parents that:

• It's good to rotate cheese in and out of their child's diet so they don't eat it every single day.
• There is calcium in a lot of different foods, including salmon, greens and tofu.
• Teaching children to eat a variety of foods (which, by the way, you can't do when you feed kids a monotonous diet) is one of the most important ways parents can set their kids up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
• They don't have to be on the lookout for calcium-rich foods all the time. It's not that hard to get enough calcium into their kids.
• It's never a good idea to compromise their long-term goals for the sake of the immediate meal.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

© 2013 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Dina's book, It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating is scheduled for release January, 2014.