Rainbow WalkWhile I’m talking about the red/orange/yellow rainbow spectrum used on food packaging to lure you into eating more, let me mention one great new study published today that may change your world. Especially if you have a child living in your house. If you acknowledge the finding that about 1 out of every 4 children between the age of 4- 8 years old eats fast-food on a typical day, this has relevance to at least about 1/4 of us. Today!

A study published today in Pediatrics found that when parents are aware of the calorie count in McDonalds fast-food items, they order less caloric foods for their preschoolers (age 3-6). In a Seattle pediatric clinic, about 100 parents filled out McDonald’s menu choices for lunch for themselves and their preschooler. Families who had menus that included calorie content for each item listed selected meals that were about 100 less calories for their kids compared to families who didn’t have nutritional information (calorie count) on the menu. Just by having the number of calories listed for each food item on the menu, families made better choices for their child!

Brilliant and then seemingly simple, huh?  However, lots of fast-food chains don’t readily provide nutritional info. As menu-labeling laws may be incorporated into health care change and reform, this study helps define how important access to nutritional information is for all of us.

100 Calories may not seem like a big deal. It is. Over time, just eating an excess of 100 calories every day can cause a child to get fat.

True.

100 extra calories a day can mean everything when you’re weighing in around 30-40 pounds in the preschooler ring.

One way I like to think about over-eating is the concept of “energy gap.” Energy gap represents the imbalance of energy (food) taken in and energy that is expended (calories burned off). Kids get overweight because there they eat more food and calories (energy in) than the calories they need to grow, develop and function on a daily basis (energy out).  This excess energy intake is a abundance or “gap” in energy balance.

Goal is, of course, for all of us to have our:
Energy in (food & drinks) = Energy Out (growth + energy to play & move + daily functioning)

For healthy, growing children finding equivalence in this equation can be a huge challenge in the face of large portion sizes, snacks galore (more energy in) and more and more time in front of the computer and TV (less expenditure).

Data on “energy gap” is kind of astounding to parents when I share it with them.

For example, it’s not often the case that an overweight 3 year-old child is pigging out all day and lying around watching TV. More it seems, for overweight children and teens, it may be quite more insidious that that. Overweight tends to sneak up on kids and families when they don’t even know it’s happening! Often parents can’t believe their child is in the overweight category when I tell them. Thinking about trimming off 100 calories here or there may be the difference in keeping a family healthy over time.

Energy gap research finds that for kids between age 2 and 7 years of age, it only takes an excess of about 110-165 calories a day to make then fat over time! Abnormal weight gain is often accumulated over time and occurs over days and days. Using the assumption that 3500 extra calories leads to an average of 1-lb weight gain as fat, researchers found that a reduction in the energy gap of 110 –165 calories/day could have prevented kids between the age of 2 and 7 years from gaining excess weight and putting them at risk for being overweight.

Yowsers. That 100 calories you save your child while watching portions and making good choices while keeping calorie counts in mind (even when at McDonalds) in the grocery store or at home will really make a difference over time.

Another fine example that our instincts really do serve us well. When we have the right information (say, calorie count and food labels that tell us what we are eating) we can do a good job making better choices for our kids.

Take the time to look at the calorie and nutrition info on packages, wrappers, and menus when available. Especially if you and your child ever find yourselves under the glow of the golden arches. That 100 calories a day may really subtract down into an equality of energy intake and expenditure, leading to overall improved health for years to come.