Will County Health: Family Health and Fitness can begin in the home

9/26/2017, 9:51 a.m.
With Family Health and Fitness Day set for Wednesday, September 27th; a good goal for families would certainly be not ...
James Zelko, the former executive director of the Will County Health Department, has been elected president of the county’s health board.

With Family Health and Fitness Day set for Wednesday, September 27th; a good goal for families would certainly be not to change their routine for a day, but to change it for the future. And even though the word “fitness” is in this special day, Will County Community Health Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jennifer Byrd says the best place to start improving a family’s health is with their eating and meal routines.

“It’s all about ‘the family that eats together,’ as well as ‘prepares their meals thoughtfully together,’” Dr. Byrd explained. “If you make the family meal a central part of the evening, prepare it with your family’s health in mind and have the children help by setting the table, it can be all about setting a model for your kids and their futures.”

Will County Health Department Executive Director Sue Olenek says that while it’s great for a family to have busy and physically active kids, doing it at the expense of what you eat can defeat the purpose. “Sure, parents want kids to be healthy and active,” Olenek pointed out, “but if you’re going from soccer to softball to swimming and you’re always stopping for fast food on the way home, you end up counter-acting the exercise benefit. It’s not good if you’re never home to prepare a healthy meal.”

Dr. Byrd added that with all the talk about kids who are much less active in the “digital age,” what happens when they get to the table can be just as damaging to their health. “The beverages, for example, should be water or milk,” Dr. Byrd stated. “Pop is not good, juice is not good, diet pop with artificial sweeteners is not good. In fact, studies have shown that if you cut all pop out of your diet, you can lose 10 percent of your body fat within a year.”

Olenek pointed out that the human body needs fluids, but one in particular remains of utmost importance over anything else. “When we say ‘keep your body hydrated, we mean water,” Olenek stated. “Now sure, water the same way over an over can get boring.” And the solution there, Olenek said, is to get creative.

“Fruit or vegetable infused water is a very good substitute for plain water. You can have a pitcher of water that also has cut up strawberries, oranges, cucumbers, or so many other possibilities. Your body gets the hydration it needs, but there’s some extra flavoring and nutrition as well.”

Sometimes, Dr. Byrd pointed out, parents think their kids are on the right track beverage wise when they actually are not. “I’ll have a parent tell me, ‘My kids only drink milk and juice.’ The simple fact is that most juice is not fruit, and even if it is 100 percent real fruit juice, you still need to build up a child’s taste for water. Otherwise, they’ll keep leaning towards something sugary.”

In fact, Doctor Byrd explained further that ‘building a taste for something’ is basically changing how one’s brain works. “The human brain is never going to deny itself pleasure. So when it comes to food and beverages, you have to have substitutes.”

On the beverage side, Byrd and Olenek both mentioned that if you just have to have the feeling of carbonation, like when drinking pop, there are various carbonated water products that come in a variety of natural flavors. “This way,” Olenek pointed out, “you can give yourself the effervescent feeling of a bubbly drink, along with some flavor. And you’re still giving your body its needed hydration.”

Dr. Byrd stated that finding substitutes for pleasurable snack items just takes a little planning ahead. “If your family likes to snack on chips, go for salt free tortilla chips and some salsa rather than barbequed potato chips. If your family likes apple pies, chop up an apple instead and flavor it with cinnamon or stevia. Stevia, being a natural plant-based sweetener, will be better accepted by your body. When you put something into your body that’s not real, it goes straight to the fat cells.”

As to the earlier mentioned topics of “the family meal” and “eating together,” there is an often asked question. What if your kids are older and very involved in activities, with family meals just not happening too often anymore? Dr. Byrd says there’s a strategy you can use for that as well.

“Take 30 minutes on a weekend, when everyone’s together, and make it ‘all hands on deck,’” Byrd explained. “As a team, prepare some of your food for the next week. This way, you can take the time to actually concentrate and strategize for what you’ll be eating. For example, if you know you’ll be in and out a lot, have healthy snacks bagged up and ready to eat at any time. You can also have bottled water right by the door ready to go with them. You’ll eat anything when you’re hungry, so this way you’ve planned ahead to eat something healthy that’s right in front of you.

But more than anything, when it comes to Family Health and Fitness Day, Olenek and Dr. Byrd both say that parents should set an example for their kids everyday by how they take care of themselves. “I eventually realized,” Dr. Byrd recalled, that my dad wanted to be healthy, so he’d get up every morning and exercise and try to eat the right foods. Pancakes for breakfast was not a regular thing, but an occasional treat. For a child, their upbringing paints their future. It is very important as to what is promoted as normal to them. An understanding of food and your body is a great start.”

Olenek agreed, saying “Being a role model is no different here than anything else when you are raising a family. You can’t do one thing when it comes to health and eating habits and expect your kids to do another thing.”

You can find more on these topics, such as the right beverages to drink, by googling MAPP Rethink Your Drink. Will County’s Mobilizing Action for Planning and Partnerships Collaborative, which the Health Department belongs to, launched this major initiative to encourage more healthy beverages last year.

For more on creative healthy foods, you can check websites such as https://thehealthyfamilyandhome.com or https://food52.com.