Meat and dairy consumption isn’t linked to the rise in childhood obesity, says Ruth MacDonald with Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Science has debunked the myth that eating fat makes us “fat,” MacDonald says. In fact, new research shows that the fats in dairy and meat tend to be what nutritionists consider “good” fats, she explains.

Beef, pork and poultry are also much leaner today than they were a generation ago, thanks to modern animal agriculture practices, MacDonald adds.

“The obesity epidemic has many facets to it. It’s partly diet, and it’s partly physical activity. It’s serving sizes and access to empty calories all the time,” MacDonald says.

“In fact, a diet that is well balanced can actually be protective of obesity. There is good evidence now that some of the fats found in dairy products, for example, improve satiety and balance calorie intake better than fat-free diets.”

The healthiest diets for kids, MacDonald says, are those that introduce them to a wide variety of foods.

“That includes everything – fish, lean meats and vegetarian options. Tofu is a really good source of protein. Just offering a wide range of foods is important,” she says.

Also, encourage your children to limit sugar-sweetened beverages and treats and high-salt snack foods to special occasions.

Parents and grandparents should teach kids about nutrition early on so they learn how to make healthy choices for a lifetime, MacDonald says.

“Kids mimic what their parents do, so if you are eating potato chips and snacks, then they are going to be eating them too,” MacDonald says. “You need to make healthy choices available, like fruits and vegetables that are pre-cut in the fridge. You can add vegetables to food easy. You can whip up some spinach and use it in a sauce, and you don’t even know it’s there.”

Iowa State University Extension’s "Spend Smart. Eat Smart." website offers recipes for easy, nutritious and budget-friendly meals and snacks.

MacDonald also recommends that if your grocery store has an in-store dietitian, request a dietitian tour of the store to discover healthier food choices.

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