7 Key Tips to Teaching Your Kids How to Live a Healthy Life
I was raised by a health food freak mom. As soon as we could read, my mom taught my sister and I how to read labels on packages of food. She had a list of forbidden toxic ingredients that we were not allowed to eat: sugar, red dyes, and nitrates were the main items we were to avoid. My sister and I had a game that we played at the grocery store, and that was find a yummy food item that met mom’s criteria. Some trips we would hit the jackpot and find lots of tasty and healthy treats, and other days we would leave disappointed that no new discoveries were made. I remember the one item I really wanted was a fruit roll up. All the kids at school had them. They would gleefully rip them off the plastic paper they came on and wrap them around their fingers with delight. I was so envious. I debated with my mom about those fruit roll ups for years, yet she held her ground saying that sugar was the first ingredient. She then went on to teach me that the order of ingredients in a food item told you how much it was in the food. Her rule: sugar couldn’t be in the first four ingredients. Keeping her rules in mind, I scoured the grocery store for years looking for new, exciting foods that were healthy. Little did I know then that this game taught me a life long lesson that I put to use when I went to college and started to chose my own food, and even now as a mother raising a healthy family.
Fast forward forty years, as a family Chiropractor and a mother of two I think often about how best to teach kids about health. I think about it when a parent brings their child to me who is suffering from chronic ear infections or a suppressed immune system. Or the mother who is raising athletes and wants to know the best health practices for injury prevention. I especially think about kids and health when I am in line at Starbucks and I see a group of sixteen year olds order venti frappuccinos with extra whip cream. I can’t help but think about health and our children when I drop my daughter off at her school and see the growing number of obese children. I am saddened by the state of the health of our children in our country. Not enough is being done to show our kids that health should be a priority. Despite massive research indicating that our lifestyle choices determine the diseases we will get later in life, our society is not teaching children what these choices need to be. Health is a journey, not an end result that happens upon us as adults. Just like we all work hard to teach our kids to be kind, considerate, smart, and wonderful people, we need to have a strategy for teaching our kids about health.
What are those best practices for teaching our kids about health? Well it begins with examining your own belief system about health. Most Americans are taught that health is an absence of symptoms. If you don’t have pain or any conditions requiring medications, you must be healthy. The problem with this belief system is that conditions like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes take years to develop in our bodies. During those years, most of those patients are symptom free. Unfortunately, with those three conditions, by the time they are discovered, a patient can be very ill. The first step to raising a healthy child is understanding that symptoms are not the best way to judge your health.
Numerous research studies are now showing that up to 80% of all chronic illnesses in our country are related to our lifestyle choices: what we eat, how much movement we get, and how much stress we have in our lives. Many experts now agree that we can avoid many diseases that our parents and grandparents had just by changing our lifestyle habits. What this means is if our parents had diabetes, we don’t have to get diabetes if we apply good nutritional habits when we are younger. If breast cancer runs in your family, take steps now to eat foods that don’t feed cancer cells or give the body an environment where cancer can thrive. Many doctors are preaching that most cancers can be avoided by increasing fruits and vegetables and limiting processed foods. With this current research in mind, below are what I feel are the seven key steps in teaching your children about how to live a health life.
1. The best way to judge your health is by the lifestyle choices you and your family are making.
Stop looking at health as symptom-free living. Start looking at health as a journey. Your symptoms are going to come and go. It’s your daily health habits that will determine the quality of your overall health. What type of foods are your children eating? Do you know what is in the foods that you buy? Are you getting regular fresh fruits and veggies in your diet? What is the sugar intake of your child? Do you eat out a lot? Do you eat at fast food restaurants frequently? Is your child getting lots of movement throughout the day? I always tell my patients that there are five key things you need to incorporate into your life to be healthy: good nutrition, daily movement/exercise, proper rest, a good mental attitude, and a properly functioning nervous system. I highly recommend that families use these five as a health check list. When one of these pieces is ignored, the body will move out of a state of health and be more susceptible to illness.
If you do have a child that is catching colds a lot, in pain, or dealing with poor health, you don’t want to ignore those symptoms. That is not what I am advocating. What I do strongly urge you to do is look at your lifestyle choices and see if there are food and/or activity level changes you could make in your child’s life that might help him or her feel better. Reaching for a medication is often a quick way to treat a symptom, when the real cause of a problem is a nutritional imbalance, a toxicity, a lack of movement, a stressful situation, or maybe a little of all these things.
2. How are you modeling health for your child?
The most important thing to remember is that raising a healthy child starts with you being healthy. Take a moment to step into your child’s shoes. If you were looking at you, would you see a person who works on their health everyday. Do they see or know that you exercise? Are you making good healthy food choices for yourself? Are you incorporating fruits and vegetables in the majority of your meals? Would you see a parent that prioritizes health? I treated a family in my office many years ago, where the parents were not healthy, ate fast food a lot, didn’t have good sleeping habits, and rarely exercised. They constantly asked me questions about exercise habits for their children. You could see they wanted to break the unhealthy cycle for the kids. I applauded them for thinking that way and continually advised them on strategies to implement that would make their kids healthier. The challenge was that you can’t ask your kids to implement healthy habits if you’re not willing to change. Eventually these kids grew up and started taking on the same bad habits their parents had. As much as we may want our kids to do health differently, you have to start by YOU doing health differently.
3. Start talking about health in your family.
In my household, health is a constant source of conversation. I recently read an article about a 17 year old girl who only ate McDonald’s McNuggets and now doctors are telling her that if she keeps up that trend she will die. When I picked my daughter up from school and she asked me about my day, I told her about the article. We talked about what happens to your body when you put fast food into it. I wasn’t expecting her to have a huge ah-ha moment and jump on a no fast-food band wagon with me, but what I was doing was planting seeds. Talk with your kids about the health choices you are making as a family. When we packed our kids school lunches, we would point out that we were putting fruit and a good protein source. Now that they pack their own lunch they know the healthy formula to follow. When we make dinner we explain why we choose the recipes that we did and how they benefit our health. My 9 year old son has recently become obsessed with cooking shows and making us dinner. He always points out to me that he put protein in his meals, because he know that is a crucial item for every meal in our house. This was a kid who just a few years back would constantly ask for ice cream for dinner. Perhaps the repetitive seeds I have been planting are starting to grow.
4. Teach them how to read labels.
Just like my mother did, I teach my kids how to read a nutrition label. Since my son has been a sugar lover, instead of just vetoing every sugary treat he would ask me for, I taught him how to look at the number of grams of sugar an item had. Now he will come to me with a food item and tells me right off how many grams of sugar and protein a product has. Together we talk about if that item is a healthy choice or not. It’s also a chance for me to discuss with him how much sugar he may have had that day, and how well his body will handle more. With all the chemicals that are put in foods these days, I also point out to my kids that the long words that are hard to pronounce in a food are most likely a preservative used to make the food last longer. What I love about reading labels is that we get to talk through the process of selecting foods that help your body function at it’s best. My hope is that someday when they are not under my roof, that process will be second nature to them.
5. Include them in the food choices for meals, snacks, and lunches.
Once you start talking about the food choices you are making in your household, empower your kids to start making some of the meals. This is a great opportunity to help them make healthy choices on their own. Remember that some day they will be making their own meals, so knowing how to make a great tasting healthy meal is a fantastic life skill. When we first started letting go of the control of making dinner, and let our son jump in and make a meal, it wasn’t always pretty. One of his first meals had all starchy carbohydrates topped with sugar. I applauded him for his efforts and continued to plant seeds that helped him make a more balanced meal. At 9 years old he can now make us all dinner that is not only healthy, but tasty, too.
6. Hang around people that make health a priority.
A recent study showed that having a buddy who packs on pounds makes you 57 percent more likely to do so yourself, according to the key findings of James Fowler, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California at San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., a sociology professor at Harvard, who have studied social networks for 10 years. “Consciously or unconsciously, people look to others when deciding what and how much to eat, and how much weight is too much,” said Fowler.
The same thing happens with our kids. Recently my daughter told me that she was having an Izze soda pop with her lunch at school everyday. I was shocked. She knows how much I am against soda, but also knows that I will let her have an Izze soda every once in awhile because it doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup. But everyday! My health brain was freaking out. Calmly I asked her why she was having an Izze everyday, and she said because all her friends drank one with lunch everyday. The power of friends, just like the study said. I discussed with her the implications of drinking Izze’s daily had on her body. We talked about the fact that soda did not help her body function the way she wanted it to feel and perform. We also talked about everything in moderation, and an Izze every once in awhile is ok.
A few years back my daughter was quite resistant to hearing about my healthy food choices. Then something happened that changed that. She started hanging around a family who prioritized health and nutrition as much as we did. The mom of this family also taught her children to read labels, limit sugar, and be conscientious about what goes into their bodies as much as we did. My daughter loved this family, respected the mom, and saw the kids having a positive, fun attitude about the food choices they were given. This changed my daughter’s attitude towards me and my healthy ways. She suddenly saw that we weren’t some freakish family who didn’t have dessert all the time. She began to embrace health as a process that can be fun. It also gave her something in common with a friend she loved dearly. The power of friends!!
7. Make Health Fun!!
The most important piece of teaching health to your children is to make it fun!! The journey of health can be enjoyable. Kids will gravitate to people and situations that are exciting, new and makes you laugh. Don’t lecture them on healthy choices, make a game out of it. Recently, in our family, we have gotten into juicing. I have been trying many different ways to put together tasty and healthy fruits and vegetables. Last week, I put together what I thought was a great healthy combo: spinach, kale, and apple. I gave my kids a glass and asked them to rate it. My son has a thumb rating system. Thumbs up is a 10 (best ever!) and thumbs down a 1 (it sucks!). They both gave this drink a thumbs down and told me it was horrible. We all laughed at my attempt to get kale and spinach into them. Back to the blender I went. Next up was spinach, apple, banana, orange, and lemon. Although it looked green and healthy, they loved it! Two thumbs up! They giggled as they drank it, and teased me about my how I was trying to make them healthy. The process was fun and full of good nutrition. This morning I told them that we were going to make our own chocolate. My daughter turned to her brother and said, “Look out, She has some freakish healthy chocolate recipe.”. We all laughed, yet I know that we will have a great time discovering new ways to make chocolate together.
So make health in your household fun! Teach your kids that health is a journey to be enjoyed. Model for them that health should be a priority. And every once and awhile drink an Izze with them.
Cheers to better health in your family!!