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posted: 9/26/2012 6:11 AM

Ask the Nutritionist: Don't give up on picky eaters

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Q. What is the best approach for dealing with children who are picky eaters?

A. "Picky eating" is common among children. How parents handle it can strongly influence its severity and duration.

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Fear of trying new foods -- called food neophobia -- is typical of young children and often peaks from ages two to five, but it can occasionally be an ongoing tendency. Parents can help children gradually outgrow this fear by continuing to serve a variety of foods and showing that they enjoy these foods. Studies show that parents often give up on introducing a new food after three to five tries; experts recommend a minimum of eight to 15 tries, and kids may still need to try a food many times before they truly enjoy it. Small portions make new foods less overwhelming.

Some children resist even familiar foods and it seems to be a learned behavior pattern. Children's developmental need for independence often leads to food refusal, and if parents allow a power struggle to develop, picky habits often increase.

Child development experts discourage rewarding kids for trying a new food, because this can interfere with their ability to learn to actually like the food. Instead, experts encourage this division of responsibility: parents and caregivers decide where and when eating will occur and what foods are offered; children decide how much they eat of each offering and do not get to order special requests.

Keep realistic expectations of how much children eat, too. Toddlers' growth rate slows dramatically, and with a stomach only the size of their fist, they don't need a lot at one time. They may eat widely varying amounts from day to day.

Parents need to provide the right environment for eating -- removing distractions and teaching children that they cannot get up and down to play during mealtime. By letting kids choose how much of the food they to eat, they should eventually grow out of food phobias and pickiness.

Q. Does the vegetable called a jicama have any nutritional value? How is it prepared?

A. A jicama (the "J" is pronounced like an "H") is a tuber that looks like a cross between a turnip and a potato. Peel it, then slice into strips to serve raw in salad or with a low-fat dip, or cook it by steaming, stir-frying or oven roasting.

Jicamas have a mild flavor and crunchy texture. Choose smaller ones (they're less woody) that are free from bruises. A cup of raw jicama contains only about 50 calories. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of dietary fiber, too.

Q. Eating more calories than I should won't cause a weight problem as long as they're largely from protein, right?

A. No, if you eat too many calories, you will add body fat, even if the calories include lots of protein.

It's true that protein is important for weight management and healthy body composition. Studies now show that protein helps keep hunger satisfied longer than either the carbohydrate or fat that we eat. What's more, getting enough protein is important to build and maintain lean body tissue like muscle and to maintain metabolic rate, which is probably important to long-term weight control.

In one controlled trial where 25 participants were required to eat similarly excessive calories, body fat increased equally in all groups, regardless of whether people were consuming low, normal or high levels of protein.

Bottom line: whether your goal is to lose, maintain or gain weight, do make sure each meal totals up adequate protein from beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and vegetables, as well as dairy and seafood, poultry and meat if you choose them. But don't think of protein as some magic food that goes only to muscle; excess calories from any source still promote excess body fat. This is important, since the real link to increased risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes is not weight itself, but excess body fat.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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