As kids advance in age and education, they can understand more complicated topics and more details, but no matter what the age, there are some messages that stay consistent. Today, I spent a few hours teaching 5th and 6th graders the names of vitamins and minerals (vitamin A, B vitamins, calcium, potassium, etc), and their basic effects on the body, but I didn’t particularly expect the kids to retain it all. Many adults have a hard time keeping these things straight, and this sort of knowledge isn’t always important in promoting health – in the same way that memorizing dates doesn’t help you understand important themes in history, memorizing facts about vitamins’ sources doesn’t help you establish healthy habits.
What I emphasize as being most important when talking to kids is eating a variety of colors of food, including reds, oranges, greens, blues and purples. Many health professionals are making similar recommendations for healthy eating, because a broad color array of vegetables ensures intake of a broad range of nutrients. This was driven home for me when one of the students told me that her father wouldn’t let her leave the dinner table until she’d eaten at least three different colors of food, and another told me that at her camp last summer, a competition was held to see how many different colors of food the campers could eat in a week – two moments that made me hopeful for a generation of good eaters to come.
Beyond practicality and ease of comprehension, there’s sound science behind the recommendation that people eat a variety of food colors. The carotenoids in carrots, tomatoes, squash, and yams are what give them their red or orange colors, and are potent antioxidants in the body. The green in leafy green veggies comes from chlorophyll of course, but leafy greens pack a powerful punch of vitamins and especially minerals. Finally, many blues and purples (and some reds) come from antioxidants called proanthocyanidins, a group of non-vitamin nutrients that have especially strong action in the cardiovascular system. No one of these substances can fix all of the body’s problems, but taken together, these nutrients help to prevent many diseases.
I also like to talk about a variety of colors because it interests children. Numbers and long names don’t mean much to 10-year-olds, but colorful pictures of food get them chattering, and leaning out of their seats to answer questions. It’s this interest in and engagement with food that gets kids eating new foods, discovering favorites, and hopefully forming lifelong habits that will prevent disease down the road.
Finally, encouraging kids to eat colorful food is as notable for what it excludes as what it includes. Many kids today are on what some refer to as the ‘white food diet’, i.e. bread, potatoes, pasta, chicken, and other similarly ‘inoffensive’ foods. Many of these ‘white foods’ are heavily processed, and stripped of minerals and vitamins – they may have some B vitamins as a result of fortification or innate nutrition, but gone are the many antioxidants that are necessary for healthy growth and cellular function. While these foods can certainly be part of a healthy diet, encouraging children to eat colorful diets treats these foods as part of a palate, not the only thing on the menu. Children sometimes favor these foods for their own individual reasons, but given the right prodding, they can be convinced to embrace vegetables as well.
Teaching healthy eating habits to kids is vitally important. To be sure, they might not all become rabid locavores as a result, but the effort is an important one, especially as we’ve been neglecting it here in the US for several generations. I like to use the analogy of taking out the garbage – it’s nothing that we really like to do, but it’s a necessary part of daily living, and if we clean up our little bit of garbage every day, it’s not a huge effort. If, however, we let it go for weeks or years, it becomes a BIG problem that requires a massive effort to fix. What was once contained by the garbage can spreads outside the can, and then to the rest of the kitchen, and then to other rooms, until it starts damaging the house. Likewise, the nutrients in vegetables help clean up our body’s small messes every day, when they’re not a big problem. Unfortunately, if we don’t, the mess gets bigger and bigger, spreading to different organs, and eventually causing real damage – at which point, it’s a lot harder to fix the problem.
The point is this: We all teach our kids to take out the garbage. We should all teach them how to eat vegetables. Fortunately for us, teaching kids about vegetables can be a lot more fun than teaching them to clean up after themselves.