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Don't Let Dinnertime Decisions Spoil a Good Meal

Armen Hareyan's picture


If trying to decide what to feed the kids at dinnertime is an everyday headache, pain relief is just a click away.

The new Interactive Healthy Eating Plan Calculator teaches parents and kids the meaning of a real, well-balanced meal. The calculator is offered on the USDA Children's Nutrition Research Center (CNRC) at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) website.

The web address is www.kidsnutrition.org

"By entering a child's sex, age, weight, height and physical activity level, parents can obtain an estimate of a general eating plan that provides all the nutrition and energy their child needs to grow and be active without contributing to excessive weight gain," said Dr. Dennis Bier, a professor of pediatrics and director of the CNRC. The CNRC is a joint program of BCM and Texas Children's Hospital.

The plans generated by the calculator are based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Institute of Medicine's Dietary Reference Intake recommendations for children ages 4 and older. In addition to suggesting amounts of the basic food groups, including fruits, vegetables, grains, milk products, lean meats, beans, and oils, the calculator provides an estimate for discretionary calories.

"Discretionary calories are the calories 'left over' in a child's diet after subtracting the caloric content of the recommended servings of nutrient dense foods from their recommended calorie level," Bier said.

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In other words, discretionary calories are those that can be 'spent' consuming foods that are generally considered "fun foods" or foods intended to be consumed on an occasional basis, once basic nutrition requirements have been satisfied. Of course, a child's discretionary foods allowance can be used to consume more of the foods from the basic food groups as well.

According to Bier, taking a close look at a child's discretionary calorie budget and the tables that list the fat, calories and sugar content of popular foods that accompany the calculator may be a real eye-opener for some parents.

"When kids are relatively inactive, their discretionary calorie allowance is quite small, while that of active kids is much, much larger," he said. "Understanding these limits on discretionary calories can help parents better appreciate the value of physical activity and help them make better decisions about managing low nutrition, high calorie foods."

All foods really can fit into a healthy diet for children. It's just a matter of how much and how often. The diets of active kids have room for a bit more and a bit more often, Bier said.

Because the calculator is designed as an educational tool to help families set healthy eating goals, the recommendations provided are for normal weight children between the ages of 4 and 18.

Overweight children need almost the identical list of nutrients as their slimmer counterparts, but there is less room in their diets for discretionary calories, he said. This is also why increasing physical activity is an essential element of nutritional recommendations given to parents with children prone to weight problems.

Bier said that in addition to limiting discretionary calories, the calculator's healthy eating plan, like the new dietary guidelines, promotes high fiber foods, including whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

HOUSTON - (July 5, 2005)