Jordan “Jordy” Epps’ blue eyes narrowed as he studied the food label on the back of the chocolate milk carton he’d picked up from the school lunch line. “This has 25 grams of sugar,” Jordy said on a recent Thursday while having lunch at South Conway Elementary School. “On Wednesday, we have the unhealthy potatoes: french fries. It’s healthy on the inside, but on the outside it’s not because they’re fried.”
The 9-year-old fourth-grader can speak more intelligently about calories, food labels and healthy eating habits since completing Resolutions, a six-week weight-management program offered through Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach.
The program was designed to help families learn more about healthy eating habits and the benefits of exercise. Such programs can be helpful for families living in a world that has made eating healthfully more challenging thanks to fast-food restaurants, biggie-sized portions and the abundance of high- calorie, fat-and-sugar-filled foods on the market.
Poor eating habits and inadequate exercise have resulted in a growing epidemic of overweight kids at risk of becoming overweight adults with serious chronic health problems. It’s a serious matter in need of immediate attention, beginning with the parents, one expert says.
“Kids learn their healthy eating habits from their parents,” said Mary Ellen Scarborough, a registered dietitian at Grand Strand Regional Medical Center and a Resolutions instructor. “Parents need to be the role models.”
Scarborough would have been proud to see Jordy reading food labels at his school lunch table. She and other Resolutions instructors focus on educating children about how to make good choices at school and when dining out, and help parents pack a more healthful lunch box.
Jordy’s enthusiasm for his newfound knowledge has even bubbled over into the classroom, where he shares tidbits of information he learned from the six-week course and shows off a pedometer he wears to record how far he’s walked each day.
“He was really taking in the instruction,” said his teacher, Jullene Binder. Binder and others say Jordy has changed, which speaks to how little changes can make a big difference. “I see that he’s making better choices when he eats,” Binder said. “To have a conversation with a [9-year-old] on how to lead a healthier lifestyle says something.”
Denise Baldwin, another teacher and family friend, said not only has Jordy lost weight from making changes but his outlook seems brighter. “He’s always smiling a lot, but I think he’s maybe a little bit happier with himself,” Baldwin said while watching Jordy and his classmates run around the playground during recess. Jordy had to constantly pull up his jeans, which wanted to slide down from the recent weight loss.
He’s lost 11 pounds since mid-January. “I may need a new pants size,” Jordy said. “Two ladies from church said if I lost seven pounds, they’d take me on a shopping spree.” Jordy’s mother, Jodi Epps, has made an arduous effort to change her family’s healthy eating habits by offering more fruits and vegetables, and preparing more lean meats.
“We’re eating a lot of grilled chicken,” Epps said. “We’ve had whole-wheat spaghetti and we’re eating more salads.” The family also is conscious about what they choose when dining out. They often split entrees between themselves or order some items as a side dish to avoid eating oversized portions.
“Jordy wanted to try some pasta, but instead of having it as an entree, it was listed as a side dish,” she said. “I’m glad we did that because it was so big.” When dining out, Scarborough recommends splitting meals, taking advantage of doggie bags and avoiding extra items.
“A lot of the stuff about dining out that causes the extra calories are the add-ons, the things the meal could survive without,” Scarborough said. “You don’t need all that butter on fish. Have your dressings on the side and use sparingly. Don’t dip your vegetables at every bit. All this dip stuff: dressings, gravies, mayo, bacon and cheese shows up. It’s a testament to the truth that we are what we eat.”
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Epps also has tried to change what Jordy eats at school. She packs his lunch a few times a week so her son isn’t tempted to eat less healthy items from the lunch line. Through experimentation, she’s discovered her son likes many of the low-sugar or fat-free items she’s begun packing.
“He can’t tell it’s fat-free or sugar-free,” she said. An example of a recent packed lunch for her son included a peanut butter and reduced-sugar jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread, raw carrots, a sugar-free Jello and water. “One day he ate fried chicken and French fries at school and felt bad,” Epps said. “I guess since he’s started eating better his stomach couldn’t tolerate the fried foods.”
On a recent day when Jordy chose to eat cafeteria food, his choices included rice, chicken a la king, carrots, green beans, celery sticks, fried beef nuggets, a cheeseburger, fruit juice on a stick, a whole wheat roll, and 2-percent, whole or chocolate skim milk. He opted for the beef nuggets, carrots, rice, roll, juice on a stick and the chocolate skim milk.
The food choices in school cafeterias have improved in recent years, mainly because of changing nutritional standards, said Laura Farmer, food services director at Horry County Schools. “The biggest change is just in the variety of foods children have to choose from,” she said. “We try to appeal to their needs and their likes so they will eat.”
Schools have begun to offer low-fat dressings, leaner meats, skim milk and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Cafeterias still serve pizza, the all-time favorite among students, but it’s now topped with leaner meat and low-fat cheese. French fries, another favorite, are also offered.
“If they don’t eat at all, it’s worse than having the French fries, so we do offer the fries,” Farmer said. The school lunch program has gotten a bad rap over the years, but Farmer said that’s no longer warranted.
“Years ago, it was school lunches weren’t healthy or good, but now it’s like a restaurant when they come in,” she said. “Before people point their fingers at school lunches, follow the child. What are they doing at home? What are they eating?”
The choices kids make outside the home will be largely influenced by what they’re eating at the family dining table, Scarborough says. “Kids eat at school the foods they’re familiar with, so if they’re not familiar with what’s put forth, they won’t eat it,” Scarborough said. “If they don’t have salads at home or steamed vegetables, they won’t choose it at school.”
Scarborough agreed that families need to establish healthy eating habits at home. Parents need to be more aware of what they’re offering at the dinner table and allow kids to be a part of planning the meal, she said. “Begin with sitting down and eating a meal together,” Scarborough said. “I think they need to slow down and not pull into a fast-food restaurant. Just slow down.”