Learning healthy habits

Learning healthy habits

By Julia Reading, News Correspondent

With Mayor Thomas Menino’s new health initiative working to reduce obesity and raise citywide health awareness, nutritionists point to early eating habits as a leading cause of obesity.
Mary Donkersloot, a nutritonist from Los Angeles and health consultant for companies like Kraft, said eating habits taught by parents at a young age are the leading cause of obesity among adults.
Menino has set a goal of reducing obesity in Boston by 30 percent for children in the next five years. Donkersloot said this is the most effective place to start.
“When parents let kids eat whatever they want, whenever they want, they never develop an arc of hunger and fullness, and one of the parents’ jobs is to allow their child to be hungry at meal time,” said Donkersloot.
If children is snacking throughout the day, they are less likely to challenge themselves with fruits and vegetables at dinnertime, she said. Children tend to demand foods full of carbohydrates and sugar. When parents satisfy these demands, children don’t learn to like healthy foods.
Donkersloot said another important issue is the amount of processed foods available to children.
“Parents need to decrease access to things like goldfish crackers and chips. Instead, kids snacks need to be meal foods like maybe a piece of bread with peanut butter on it and an apple, but less things that come out of a package which are usually full of sugar, fat and salt,” Donkersloot said.
Giving children foods like pizza and cookies as a treat, rather than a staple food, can help to avoid seeking these unhealthy options when they grow up and can choose what to eat for dinner.
“I definitely love pizza, but it was always a treat,” said middler nursing major Shannon O’Grady. “When I was younger we never had sugary cereals or soda or Lunchables. It was always a treat to get fatty foods so I guess I’ve maintained that.”
Donkersloot said she gives all her patients one rule:  Have a fruit or vegetable with every meal. Fruits and vegetables makes you feel full so you don’t over eat starchy, sugary foods. By including a fruit or vegetable, you are more likely to minimize overeating.
Another key to avoiding overeating is normalizing portion size. Donkersloot recommended limiting restaurant visits to once a week or less, because portions there tend to be much bigger than necessary.
“When a child eats at a restaurant they learn in their head that the portion they are served is an appropriate amount of food to eat, and they get what is called ‘portion distortion,’ causing them to think that the amount of food they are being served is appropriate when, in fact, it is excessive,” Donkersloot said.
Graduate law student Monica Milton said this “portion distortion” is definitely an issue she learned as a child.
“My parents encouraged me to clean my plate,” said graduate law student Monica Milton. “That impacts me as an adult [because] I’ll be full, but I’ll keep eating because my plate still has food on it. It’s not that I’m not full, but it’s what I’m used to seeing on a plate and what I have learned that I’m supposed to consume.”
Donkersloot offers a couple of tips to college students looking to re-learn bad eating habits. To start, she said, don’t think skipping meals means losing weight. Each meal should be balanced with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and moderate amounts of protein.
“If you skip a meal you are more vulnerable to eating random foods that might not be nutritious. For example, you might stop at a vending machine and buy a bag of chips instead of eating a meal,” said Donkersloot.
Donkersloot said when you eat foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt, it is too hard to stop eating them. If a person eats a chocolate bar, for example, there is a pleasure sensor in the brain where dopamine, a neurotransmitter that causes happiness is released. The brain gets trained to know that when they eat a chocolate bar, they will receive pleasure, and therefore the desire to eat a chocolate bar over a salad increases.
“I am really healthy now,” said freshman communication studies major Carly Scharf. “I don’t eat a dessert after dinner. Instead, I’ll always have fruit. I’m not used to having cookies every night, so I never even think about having a cookie because I would never in my life have a cookie after dinner. If anything it’d be a Newman’s cookie or a gluten free cookie when I was a kid.”
“You want to limit but not eliminate sweets,” Donkersloot said. “The brain wants what the brain is used to having, so you have to train the brain to be happy with a particular style of eating.”

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