Research shows many reasons why it’s important for kids to eat a diet rich in whole grains. Whole grains can help your kids – and you – maintain a healthy weight. And as your kids become older, whole grains can help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, and diet-related cancers.
Recent research that I have collaborated on through the CHANGE Study suggests that children who ate more than 1.5 servings of whole grains every day had a 40 percent less risk of being obese than children who did not consume whole grains.
Yet only about 5 percent of American adults and children eat the recommended servings of whole grains every day and not all whole-grain products are good or excellent sources of dietary fiber. There are a lot of positive developments in what food companies and others to help kids get more whole grains. But there is still more progress that we can make in three main settings.
Marketplace: Changes made by food companies that have reformulated ready-to-eat breakfast cereal products, combined with new school nutrition policies and healthier meals served at home, will collectively make it easier for children to consume the recommended three servings of whole grains every day.
This month, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative announced that it had improved the nutrient profile of 24 ready-to-eat cereals, of which two-thirds now list whole grains as the first ingredient. That’s good news because the National Health and Nutrition Survey shows that more than one third of American children’s whole-grain intake comes from ready-to-eat cereals and hot cereals such as oatmeal.
While this is a positive improvement, there are still opportunities for food companies to further reduce by half the added-sugar content in their child-targeted cereals that currently provide as much as 8-10 grams of sugar/serving. Parents need to be confident that the whole-grain cereals they give their children at breakfast are optimally nutrient-dense.
Schools: At school, new nutrition standards will ensure that the meals and snacks provided to students will contain 100 percent whole grains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Smart Snack Standards requires all foods sold at schools to be rich in whole-grains, provide no more than 200 calories per serving, and the sugar content must be 35 percent or less by weight.
Home: At home for dinner, parents can replace cooked potatoes with a half or a cup of an exotic grain or cereal. They can pull out the global atlas to show their child where other children around the world eat cooked staples such as millet (China), barley (Tibet), buckwheat (Russia) or quinoa (Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru). Linking what they eat to a memorable story may influence their child to eat whole grains to achieve a healthy weight.
Parents need to read the Nutrition Facts label carefully before they make a purchase at the grocery store. Whole grains should be the second or third ingredient on the label. Foods containing “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain,” or “bran” are usually not 100% whole-grain products.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommend that children consume at least half of their daily servings of cereal and grain products as whole grains, or about 3 ounces each day. This represents a half a cup of cooked oatmeal in the morning, a slice of 100% whole-grain bread at lunch, and about 3-4 whole-grain crackers as a snack or a half a cup of cooked whole-grain pasta at dinner.
You can urge companies to reduce sugar in their cereals on in initiative on the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Vivica Kraak, PhD, RD, is a public health nutrition consultant in the greater Cleveland, Ohio area and can be reached through twitter at @vivicakraak.