The rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past 30 years. Now, a growing number of young children have Type II diabetes and heart disease, too. Those are scary statistics — especially to Dr. David Katz, who has spent his career researching children’s nutrition. The director and co-founder of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, Katz has kids’ heart disease, diabetes and their primary cause, obesity, in his cross hairs.
Here, he shares thoughts on this growing threat to our kids and even his favorite heart-healthy burger recipe.
1) We’ve talked lot about heart health this month at Healthy Eats, but folks often assume heart disease only affects older people? What about kids and younger adults?
Kids’ vulnerability to heart disease begins with the obvious: They have hearts and they have blood vessels. Their hearts are smaller and younger than those of their parents, yes, but they are present and subject to injury by the same insults: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, oxidation, insulin resistance, diabetes and so on. Atherosclerosis — the process that gums up coronary arteries with plaque, leading to heart attacks — generally develops over decades, but it can begin at any stage of life. The earlier it begins, the earlier the damage becomes truly dangerous.
Due largely to the epidemic of childhood obesity, we now have rampant type-2 diabetes (which was formerly called “adult-onset diabetes”) in children. When kids succumb more and more to diabetes, it’s just a matter of time before teenagers succumb to heart disease. I know the case of a 17-year-old boy who had a triple coronary bypass, due to obesity and diabetes. Thankfully, such cases are still rare, but they won’t stay that way if we stay on our current trajectory.
2) So it sounds like we need to get the word out. Do you have strategies for making nutrition education fun for kids?
First, for kids and adults alike, my attitude is that we should love food that loves us back! In other words, I don’t expect people to choose between food that’s good and food that’s good for them — they can have both. Kids need to know that they will like what they eat.
But kids also care about feeling well. In my Nutrition Detectives program, I point out that food is the fuel that runs the human body. It’s the fuel that powers all of the activities that are fun! If you like to dance, food is the fuel. If you like swimming, or skiing, or soccer, or basketball, or singing, or whatever, food is the fuel.
I also point out to kids that they’re growing, and they have to build those extra inches of themselves out of something. So I give them a choice: Would they rather be made out of junk or good stuff? When they understand food is, literally, the raw material to build a growing body, “junk” food sounds like a very bad idea.
People can learn to prefer more wholesome foods by gradually eating more of them. Taste buds are very adaptable little fellas — when they can’t be with the foods they love, they learn to love the foods they’re with! Your mom asks you to eat spinach or broccoli not because she wants to torture you, but because she loves you, and wants you to be healthy and happy and energetic; and you’re going to fight with her for THAT?
3) You are involved in the NuVal nutritional scoring system for foods in the grocery store. How does this system help shoppers make better choices?
We all know that spinach is very nutritious and cheese doodles not so much, right? But what about foods that are much more alike: which salad dressing, breakfast cereal, bread, granola bar, pasta sauce, crackers, cookies and chips are best for us? Unless you are a true expert — and maybe even not then — it can be very, very hard to tell.
So we made it easy. The work of some of the top nutrition and public health experts in North America, NuVal is based on a sophisticated algorithm that puts together all of a food’s details to generate a score for overall nutritional quality on a scale from 1 to 100: the higher the number, the more nutritious the food. Period.
We have NuVal in 526 supermarkets in 19 states currently. Since the scores appear on the supermarket shelf right next to the price, it can also tell you where to find the most nutritional value for your buck: a healthy bargain, in other words.
4) Your website has some fabulous recipe. What’s your favorite heart-healthy dish?
My wife, Catherine, is an amazing cook, who can combine the creative flare of a chef with the systematic experimentation of a research scientist (which, in fact, she is). The result is that over the years, she has methodically blended the best cuisine with my very demanding nutrition standards and so the Katz family eats food we love, that loves us back, every day!
Our Super Bowl Sunday is a great example. While many households may have had burgers, we made burgers from a blend of lean, ground turkey and cooked, mashed lentils (see the recipe below). Here’s the amazing thing: The lentils, while adding enormously to the nutritional benefits, actually make the meat taste richer! We don’t eat red meat, and these burgers almost looked and tasted TOO much like beef for my palate. But not quite. They’re delicious. They’re also super-nutritious, low in saturated fat and rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Katz Family Turkey Burgers
Makes 6 burgers (1 burger per serving)
1 pound extra lean ground turkey
1/2 cup pureed cooked lentils
20 whole-grain crackers
2 tablespoons flaxmeal
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Place crackers in coffee grinder and grind finely to make crumbs; pour the cracker crumbs in a large bowl, add flaxmeal and mix.
Add the ground turkey, pureed lentils, eggs, ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, onion powder, garlic powder and salt to the bowl with the cracker crumbs/flax meal mixture and combine together using a fork (or you can dig in with your hands, clean of course!) until well blended.
Form into 6 patties and spray lightly with olive oil mister (do not do each individually, or you will tend to spray too much and add unnecessary fat).
Spray olive oil cooking spray in a large cast iron grill pan (you can also grill on BBQ) and heat over high heat. When hot, grill the turkey patties on each side until cooked through (8-10 minutes).
Nutrition Information (1 burger):
Total fat: 4 grams
Saturated fat: 0.5 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams
Cholesterol: 118 milligrams
Sodium: 348 milligrams
Protein: 24 grams
Fiber: 3 grams