Disney's announcement this week that it is cracking down on junk food advertising aimed at kids had parents and nutrition advocates all the way up to first lady Michelle Obama cheering. But experts say it will take a lot more to tackle a childhood obesity problem so severe that nearly a quarter of American teens are considered diabetic or prediabetic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. • Susan Levin is a registered dietitian and director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which last week rapped the knuckles of fast-food chains for touting "healthy'' kids meals (see graphic). We asked Levin about Disney, kids' health and the one best thing you can do for your child's diet.
What do you think of Disney's new standards?
Even though Disney is making a small step in the right direction, I'm afraid it's too small. As far as I can tell, the focus is exclusively on calories, sugar and sodium, which in my opinion is a pretty generous net. Let's take breakfast cereal: They're not going to let brands be advertised with more than 130 calories, 10 grams sugar or 200 milligrams of sodium. So cereals like Lucky Charms, Count Chocula, those junk food cereals still meet those standards.
If your child is healthy, active and not overweight, what's wrong with Lucky Charms or Happy Meals?
We're talking about dietary habits that are set often for a lifetime. Eating foods with lots of saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar and foods low in fiber will still damage arteries and increase blood pressure and LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. There are plenty of thin children and adults whose insides are traumatized by their diets.
So what can a parent whose kids want fast food do?
The good news is that these dietary preferences are usually imposed on kids. They are not born with a desire to eat McDonald's. I'm not saying it isn't hard. You have a whole system working against you. But you can do your part as a parent to set those preferences in place early by providing healthier foods.
If you can do just one thing to improve your family's diet, what should it be?
I have two answers. First, eat more fiber. It's in any plant — fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, beans. It's not in any animal products. Fiber-rich foods displace less nutrient-dense foods, so you're satisfied longer.
And the other thing is?
Eliminate dairy products.
Yes! Try replacing milk with soy or almond milk. Just do it for 21 days and see if things in your kids like coughing, earaches, allergies and acne don't improve dramatically. Then decide how much you want it in your diet.
What are you having for lunch today?
I'm on a budget, so I bought a loaf of pretty high fiber bread, lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard, and (vegetarian) deli slices made by a company called Field Roast. I'm making a big sandwich.