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Veggie-Loving Parents Make Nutrition a Family Affair

Eating: Jon and Susan Gerson are raising their young sons to prefer the healthful foods with which their home is well stocked.

June 17, 2002|CAROL MORELLO | WASHINGTON POST

When it comes to eating, the Gerson boys can make most parents feel as if they must be doing something wrong.

At 9, Eliot knows how to draw a detailed food pyramid, sketching out the recommended servings of cereals, fruits and vegetables and the very few servings of sweets and fats. Then he adds, deadpan, "I'd prefer a fresh, juicy white peach to a strawberry ice cream." Scott is 5, and while he hankers for gummy candies, he also counts broccoli and spinach among his favorite foods. Many children his age can read, but not many routinely read the nutrition labels on boxes and cans at the supermarket, as Scott and Eliot do.

Credit--or blame--their parents, Jon and Susan Gerson, who consciously have conditioned them to crave fresh fruits and vegetables the way other kids hunger for processed, nitrate-laden hot dogs and deep-fried chicken nuggets. Junk food rarely enters their house, which is in the Washington suburb of Kensington, Md.

Refrigerator bins are loaded with veggies green and yellow and red. Six varieties of apples nestle beside nectarines, apricots and kiwis in the big wooden bowl on the kitchen counter. The pantry is stocked with cans of black olives and chickpeas for snacking. The frozen enchiladas are organic vegetarian.

"If the choice is fries or beans, most kids will choose fries. But if I only put out choices that I want them to eat, I don't have to worry," says Susan of her philosophy that kids will eventually eat what is put in front of them.

"You have to ask yourself," she says, "at what point do kids reject them? Or do parents stop serving them first?"

That the Gersons' approach seems to have worked is nothing short of awe-inspiring to any otherwise intelligent adult who has ever engaged in a battle to get a waist-high person to just taste something that smacks of produce. But even relative paragons of gastronomic virtue such as the Gersons live in the same fat- and sugar-sotted world as the rest of us. It's just that most people live there full time; the Gersons are mere tourists in Sugarland.

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Whether or not young children are in the house, the eating habits of most Americans would be graded, at best, "needs improvement."

It's not for lack of information. The Agriculture Department has designed the food pyramid as a guide to daily eating. Nutrition groups have built advertising campaigns urging us to eat the right things.

But "nobody wants to eat food because it's good for them," Washington dietitian Katherine Tallmadge says. "People eat because something tastes good." And so, a decade after the food pyramid made its debut, six in 10 American adults are overweight, and a quarter are considered obese. One child in eight weighs too much.

In some ways it's easier to find nutritious food. Many supermarkets carry exotic fruits, and even fast-food restaurants have salad bars. But there are more temptations than there used to be, and they come in bigger sizes. Just try to find a 6-ounce bottle of soda, common only three or four decades ago. Now vending machines routinely dispense 20-ounce bottles.

Part of the allure is genetic. Humans are born with a sweet tooth: In one study, the faces of infants fed chocolate for the first time lit up as if they were discovering joy itself. Given green beans, they grimaced with a distinct yuck. Anthropologists say such reactions are traceable to our hunting-and-gathering ancestors, who used taste to distinguish between bitter plants that might be poisonous and high-sugar foods that provided energy. Now the only hunting and gathering we do is from a supermarket shelf jammed with choices and calories.

"For the first time in our evolution as human beings, a lot of food is easily available," says Tallmadge. "We don't have to go out and catch it, skin it or forage for it. And it's really delicious. It's sweet and salty and fatty. And we're eating larger portions."

What is a parent to do? Banning junk food outright doesn't work. Parents who treat sweets like controlled substances often end up with children who eventually binge, studies have concluded. But growing research on taste preferences suggests children can learn to like vegetables. Leann Birch, a Pennsylvania State University researcher who has studied finicky eaters--children who adamantly stick to the same one or two foods, day after day--says it takes eight to 10 exposures to a vegetable before children overcome their innate fear of new foods and try it.

Nutritionists say the lesson is to be persistent and patient and not get too hung up on rules that can rob eating of its fun.

"Twenty or 30 years ago there was a norm for family meals," says Ellyn Satter, author of "Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family." "The whistle blew at 6, and everybody went home. Now there's soccer practice at 6. The norm is absolutely gone. What has come forward to replace it is a bunch of rules. The food guide pyramid is so meticulous overall that the message to the public is rigidity and avoidance.

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