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Kids Ask, We Answer

What's a whole food?

Whole foods grow on the earth; we find them right in nature. Examples of whole foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. They are the healthiest foods we can eat, packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals to help us avoid getting sick. Our bodies feel and work their best when we "fuel up" on whole foods.

What's a processed food?

Processed generally means that something has been made in a factory as opposed to being found naturally in nature. For example, fruits and vegetables grow on the earth, so we know that they are whole foods. Things like chips, candy, and cookies are not found in nature — they are made in factories and are processed foods. Processed foods almost always have added ingredients that are harmful to our health. The more a food has been processed, the less healthy it is.

Can I still eat processed foods sometimes?

Yes, if your parents say that it's OK. We don't need to cut out all processed foods; we just want to eat less of them and eat more whole foods.

Why should half my plate be fruits and vegetables?

Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of nutrients including potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamins. We get the most nutrients and the best quality "fuel" from eating fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy green vegetables.

Why is water the healthiest drink?

Without water, your body would stop working properly — you can't survive for more than a few days without it. Water helps the body to do all of its important jobs. We get some of the water we need from food. Fruits and vegetables contain much more water than other foods, which is another great reason to eat more of them. In addition to eating fruits and veggies, you should drink at least six to eight cups of water each day and more if you're playing sports or being very active.

What's a legume?

Legumes include beans like lentils, chickpeas, navy beans, and black-eyed peas as well as green beans, peas, and snap peas. Legumes are loaded with fiber and are a good source of B vitamins. Hummus and other bean dips are a popular way to eat legumes and provide a great dip for other vegetables. Legumes are also a good source of protein.

What's the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?

Fruit develops from the flowers of the plant and contains the seeds. For example, since a tomato has seeds, that means it's a fruit. Some other foods that we tend to think of as vegetables are actually fruits, such as: avocado, beans, peapods, corn kernels, cucumbers, olives peppers, pumpkin, and squash. Other parts of the plant — the stems, leaves, roots, and flower bud — are considered to be vegetables. Examples include:

  • Celery (stem)
  • Lettuce (leaves)
  • Cauliflower and broccoli (buds)
  • Beets, carrots and potatoes (roots)
What's a whole grain?

A whole grain is the entire seed of a plant. This seed (also known as a "kernel") is made up of three key parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Examples of whole grains include: brown rice, 100% whole wheat, millet, oats, barley, buckwheat, spelt, and rye. Whole grains are a wonderful source of fiber and other important nutrients including B vitamins which help our brains and bones. We should make most or all of the grains we eat whole grains and avoid refined grains as much as possible.

What is a refined grain?

Most of the grains we find in packaged foods are refined. Refined grains have gone through a process of milling, where their bran and germ (the parts with all the nutrients!) are removed. Unfortunately, dietary fiber, iron and many B vitamins are also removed during this process. Examples of refined grains include: white flour, white rice, and white bread. Wheat bread can also be disguised as a whole grain — if you see the terms "wheat flour" or "100% wheat" on a label, you'll know that it's not a whole grain. Only wheat products that say "whole wheat" are actually whole grains.

What's gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. People who are sensitive or allergic to gluten can still eat certain whole grains such as rice, millet, buckwheat, amaranth, sorghum and teff.

Why is it bad to eat too much sugar?

Eating too much sugar can make us gain weight, get cavities, and lead to other health problems including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. There are two different types of sugar:

  • Naturally occurring sugars
    These are found naturally in foods such as fruits and vegetables and are the healthiest way for us to eat sugar.
  • Added/refined sugars
    These are processed sugars or sweeteners have been added to foods and drinks. High-fructose corn syrup, for example, is frequently added to foods such as flavored yogurt, tomato sauce and salad dressing. Many foods we would never think of when it comes to sugar, such as bread, yogurt, and salad dressing, often have added sugar! We want to eat less than 12 grams of refined sugar a day.
How can I tell how much sugar is in a food?

Processed foods almost always have nutrition labels on them that tell you how many grams of sugar are in each serving of a product. It's also important to read the ingredient list carefully, as sugar is often listed under names other than sugar. For example, if you see any of these terms in the ingredient list, you'll know the item contains added sugar:

  • Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup
  • Malt syrup, barley malt, maltose
  • Fructose sweetener, liquid fructose
  • Sucrose, dextrose and dextrin

And there are many other names for sugar as well. Here's a helpful hint: If an ingredient ends in "ose" and rhymes with "gross," it's a sugar! And if sugar (or one of its other names) is one of the first three ingredients on a product's label, then that food is really a dessert.

Are calories bad?

We need calories to survive. They give us the energy we need to be healthy and do all the things we like to do. However, we want to be careful that we don't eat more calories than we need. Eating too many calories can make us gain weight and get sick. The amount of calories you need is different than the number your friends or parents need. Most kids need somewhere around 1600 calories a day, but it could be more or less and your pediatrician can help you figure it out. Remember, the best way to get the calories you need is by eating whole foods.

How do I read a nutrition label?

Nutrition labels tell us what's in a food product as well as what an appropriate serving is. It's important to look at the label before we eat or drink something so that we can make sure it's healthy. There are a number of "clues" you'll want to look for on a nutrition label:

  • Ingredients: The first few ingredients listed are those of which the product contains most. If you can't pronounce a lot of the ingredients or wouldn't know where in a store to find them, you probably don't want to eat that product.
  • Serving size and amount of calories per serving, as well as the amount of servings per package. The serving size tells us how much of the product we should eat or drink at one time, and the amount of servings per package tell us how many it contains. It's important to look carefully at these numbers so that we don't eat more calories than we should. For example, a bottle of juice may seem to have 120 calories at first glance, but if you look closely you'll see that there may be two servings per container. Then you'd end up getting 240 calories — as well as a lot of sugar — in one bottle.
  • Fiber content: Foods high in fiber tend to be healthiest for us. Fiber is important because it helps us feel full and keeps the digestive system working properly. Fiber can also help to slow the body's absorption of sugar. If a food contains less than 3 grams of fiber per 100 calories, it probably isn't made from whole grains and isn't the healthiest choice.
  • Trans fats: These are the worst types of fat we can eat and very harmful to health. Manufacturers can claim that their products are trans-fat free if they have under .5 grams per serving, so it's very important to be a label detective and read the list of ingredients. If you see the terms hydrogenated lard, partially hydrogenated oil, shortening, or margarine, you'll know that product contains trans fats and you should avoid eating it.

* A good question to ask when evaluating a food is "how will this help my body?" If the answer is that it can't really help or that it could hurt, pick something that is healthier.

What are nutrients?

There are two categories of nutrients — micronutrients and macronutrients. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. The other category is macronutrients and it includes carbohydrates, protein and fats. Our bodies depend on the nutrients in food to function. The best way to ensure we're getting the nutrients we need is to eat a variety of whole foods. The more intense or vibrant the color of the food, the more nutrients it typically has. Eating a rainbow of colors of whole foods each day helps to ensure that we're getting the range of nutrients our bodies need to be healthy.

What do the different vitamins do?

Vitamins A, B, C, D, and E are some of the vitamins that help us to stay healthy:

  • Vitamin A promotes healthy eyes, skin, bone, and tooth growth. It also helps our immune systems to fight disease. We can get vitamin A by eating plant foods such as dark green vegetables, dark orange fruits such as apricots and cantaloupe, and orange vegetables such as carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin.
  • B vitamins help our brains and our bones. B vitamins can be found in whole grains, seeds, legumes and greens.
  • Vitamin C helps tissue and bones grow and repair themselves, and it also helps to keep the immune system healthy. Vitamin C is found in fruits and vegetables including citrus fruits, papayas, mangoes, kiwifruit, cantaloupe, strawberries, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, and leafy greens.
  • Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium and promote strong and healthy bones. Calcium keeps bones and muscles — including the heart — healthy and strong. Our bodies make vitamin D when we play outside in the sun.
  • Vitamin E supports a healthy immune system, as well as healthy skin and eyes. Nuts, vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables, and fortified cereals are good sources of vitamin E.
Why are leafy greens the healthiest food we can eat?

Leafy greens have more vitamins and minerals than any other food; they help to improve our health and prevent disease. Leafy greens are also excellent sources of fiber and protein, and they are full of powerful phytochemicals.

What are phytochemicals?

Phyto comes from the Greek word for plant. Phytochemicals work with the vitamins, minerals and fiber in fruits and vegetables to make them even more powerful in protecting our health and lowering the risk of disease. The darker or more vibrant a whole food's color, the more phytochemicals it has.

What are "healthy fats?"

Unsaturated fats are known as healthy fats because they can improve blood cholesterol levels and help the body in a number of other ways. Unsaturated fats are mainly found in plant foods, and there are two types:

  • Monounsaturated fats
    Nuts, seeds and vegetable oils such as olive and peanut oil are rich in monounsaturated fats.
  • Polyunsaturated fats
    Walnuts, flax and chia seeds, fish, sunflower and flaxseed oils are all sources of polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 fats are an important type of polyunsaturated fat.
What are the unhealthy fats to avoid?

Saturated and trans fats.

  • Saturated fats boost LDL or what's known as "bad" cholesterol. Red meat, milk/dairy foods, and coconut and palm oils all contain saturated fats.
  • Trans fats boost LDL as much as saturated fats do, and they also lower HDL or "good" cholesterol. Eating trans fat can lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Trans fats are the very worst type of fat we can eat, and even small amounts can be harmful. Most trans fat comes from processed food that contains partially hydrogenated oil. If you see "partially hydrogenated" in the ingredient list, you'll know that food has trans fat and you should avoid it.
What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of fat in the blood. Our body makes the cholesterol it needs, but many foods such as dairy products and meat also contain cholesterol. When we get too much cholesterol from our food, it can build up in the blood vessels known as the arteries, and cause a heart attack or stroke.

What is the difference between HDL and LDL cholesterol?

HDL (high-density lipoproteins) helps keep us healthy, and LDL (low-density lipoproteins) is harmful to our health. LDL is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol because too much of it in the blood can lead to the formation of plaques in the arteries. This plaque buildup makes it much harder for blood to flow through the arteries. Plaques can grow slowly over the years and eventually block the flow of blood to the heart, causing a heart attack. Or, plaques can rupture, causing what look like chunks of oatmeal to fly off and clog a blood vessel leading to the heart or brain and causing a heart attack or stroke. HDL or "good" cholesterol acts like a garbage truck, picking up excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and transporting it to the liver so that it can be removed from the body.