I've been spending a lot of time talking about health, particularly the health of our kids and the threat posed by childhood obesity. In my conversations with students, parents and caregivers, we often discuss the various factors that contribute to "good" health, including our environment and the amount of exercise we get each day.
However, when the conversation turns to food, I've noticed an interesting misconception -- one that affects both how we get and stay healthy. The common thought is that healthy eating means cutting out all "fun" foods -- desserts, snacks, and many foods we all enjoy -- essentially becoming a diet of denial.
Moderation is a central component of the U.S.D.A's dietary guidelines, recognizing the need to balance whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit with our consumption of oils and fats. But my definition of moderation goes even further. In the "Meaning of Our Lives: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Eating and Well-Being," psychologist Paul Rozin points out that French traditions of moderation, a strong preference for quality over quantity, and an overall appreciation and enjoyment of the food experience do in fact support a healthy lifestyle.
For Americans, this means getting realistic. With so many foods so readily available to our children at every turn, it can be difficult to implement the perfect diet. But if we adjust our goals from never touching a piece of chocolate to making it a weekly treat, it will be much easier to stay on track in both the short- and long-term.
I know moderation works from my own experience. While I regularly enjoy eating fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains and have eliminated some unhealthier items, such as soda, from the Executive Mansion, I allow myself and my kids to enjoy the occasional slice of pizza. And at birthday parties, we definitely eat the cake!
As parents, we are doing our best when we can exemplify the lifestyle we want for our children. We have to remember that it is not just about good foods versus bad foods. Every food can be a part of your child's diet with some items showing up on the table less often than others. Also, we do not have to be in fear of fats! While we should limit overall consumption, fats like olive oil and canola oil are recognized as key components to a balanced diet.
At the kickoff pep rally for my Healthy Steps to Albany contest on March 1, the most important message I wanted kids and parents to take away is that we are in control of our health. We can determine what we put into our bodies. By claiming our own power around food, we have the ability to eat in a healthy way while still taking pleasure in our meals. Furthermore, as we look to teach our kids healthy eating habits, being realistic about our choices will help them to sustain these habits over time. These are not just suggestions for becoming healthy today, but for maintaining a lifetime of healthy eating.