Dierdre Pizzoferrato, also known as the Nutrition Nanny™, founded the Connecticut-based company Beanstalk Express® to counter childhood obesity. Armed with her “SnackTime Survival Kit”, her experience as a dietitian and nutritionist, and her Mary Poppins-like knack for finding the fun in daily tasks (like nutritional snacking), Dierdre is helping parents raise healthy children–one pantry overhaul at a time!
We asked her to explain more about her job and about how parents can make sure their kids have the best chance possible to grow into happy, strong adults.
LR: Many parents have busy schedules and tight budgets. Often, it seems so much easier, faster, and cheaper to order a Happy Meal than to think about, purchase, and prepare more nutritious meals or snacks. What advice can you give you parents who feel they may not have the time or money for healthy food?
DP: We have to find the time. Again, we’ve bought into this belief that meal planning and preparation does not fit into our 21st-century agenda. We have to make it fit. It’s just too important. This doesn’t mean Mom has to make a full-on dinner every night of the week, but planning a menu on the weekend to include 2 or 3 home-cooked meals is something that is doable. I highly recommend investing in a crockpot and learning easy and healthy meals that can be thrown together in the morning, will cook during the day, and are ready eat that night.
Lucille Roberts: What exactly do you do at Beanstalk Express® and as the Nutrition Nanny™?
Dierdre Pizzoferrato: I am a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist, and I specialize in child and adolescent weight management. I’ve been an advocate for the prevention of childhood obesity throughout my professional career, but this advocacy that likely began in my own childhood and with my own struggles with weight issues. It was my journey of learning healthy eating habits that led me to becoming a dietitian, but it was my early experiences as a first-time mom (to twin boys) that led me to creating my company, Beanstalk Express®. I learned very early on that knowing what to feed your children will only get you so far; once they take hold of the spoon, it’s a brand new game! Learning how to feed children is paramount to keeping them on track toward healthy habits and healthy futures. I had to learn this quickly, and it ignited my passion to help other parents and caregivers.
LR: What inspired the Nutrition Nanny™ idea?
DP: Nutrition Nanny™ was inspired after counseling countless parents and their children. On any given day, I would see at least 3 elementary school-aged children diagnosed with obesity (BMI higher than the 95th percentile), many of whom were already exhibiting symptoms of secondary diseases, such as high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
When I began working with the parents on rebuilding the home food environment, I was struck by the common denominator among them all: consumer confusion. Most of the parents were genuinely surprised that many of the foods they thought were “healthy” were actually making their children sick. Marketing tactics used to sell products have become the platform of nutrition education in this country, and it is outrageous. The urgent need to educate consumers and to help parents navigate what has become an increasingly complicated and addictive food environment is what inspired Nutrition Nanny.
I’ve been compared to a cross between “Michael Moore and Mary Poppins”, and that might just be the biggest compliment of all time! My mission isn’t to pick a fight with the food industry but to level the playing field just enough so that parents can at least get in the game! I have yet to meet a parent who wasn’t upset or concerned about her child’s weight and health. What’s inherent in all of us is to raise healthy and happy children.
LR: In your experience, what are some of the most common mistakes parents make that result in their children’s becoming obese?
DP: As a society, we’ve changed the way we value food. This hasn’t been a conscious change but one driven by changes in norms and behaviors. Over the past 30 years, we’ve bought into the belief that we’re too busy, tired or “evolved” to prepare food, paving the way for highly processed solutions. And when it comes to our children, we’ve bought into other beliefs, as well, such as the notion that toddlers need their own diet—one that consists of mac & cheese, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets—or else they simply won’t grow. And we’ve accepted the norm that kids need to snack every couple hours—and on highly processed snack foods. These industry-driven changes in the way we value childhood nutrition are the two biggest mistakes that the majority of parents fall into. Combined, these two mistakes create the prescription for childhood obesity.
LR: How can a parent tell whether her child is just going through a temporary chubby stage of development or is actually obese?
DP: What we are realizing is that, unlike past generations, kids are not “outgrowing” their chubby stages. Developmental stages that once allowed the opportunity for a child’s height to catch up with his weight (or “losing their baby fat”) are being lost to things like snacking. On average, children today are consuming 300 additional calories each day just from snacking compared to children 20 years ago. This comes out to a 1 pound of weight gain every 11 days—just from snacks! And this generation is also moving less because of sedentary activities, such as video games and TV. If a parent is concerned over her child’s weight, she should assess the food environment within the home and make changes if necessary. Also discuss any concerns with the child’s pediatrician—NOT with the child.
LR: Besides the body image issues and teasing that overweight children may face, what problems can arise due to childhood obesity?
DP: We are seeing the development of chronic diseases in children as young as 3 and 4. These chronic diseases include Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and certain bone and joint disorders. Prior to this generation, these diseases were only seen in adulthood. In 2009, the FDA approved cholesterol-lowering medications such as Lipitor for use in children as young as 8 years old. Instead of educating parents and children about nutrition, our FDA perfers that doctors prescribe drugs within unknown long-term side effects.
LR: How can parents set a positive example for their children when it comes to nutrition?
DP: Parents have to walk-the-walk. Modeling healthy eating habits includes not just healthy choices but healthy and self-moderated behaviors. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, that’s because it is. This is what parents are getting in terms of “obesity prevention” advice despite the national spotlight on this epidemic. But here’s the problem with this recycled advice: two-thirds of American adults, many of whom are parents, are overweight or obese themselves. Yet we assume that once they have children of their own, they can just flip on the “common sense healthy habits” switch and begin modeling healthy eating habits and behaviors. But, of course, there is no such “switch”. Healthy eating habits are learned, and, like learning to read they have to be taught and practiced. We have to recognize this critical need for nutrition education for parents and intervene very early on—as early as pregnancy—because by the time our kids head off for kindergarten, the foundation of their eating habits has been set.
LR: We all enjoy “treat foods” once in a while. But, are there any foods or ingredients that children should never, ever eat under any circumstances?
DP: Yes. Foods today are purposely engineered for palatability (which is how food makes us “feel”). And it’s this “feeling” that also drives our want to eat it. Thanks to recent advances in science, we now know that highly palatable foods (foods high in sugar, fat, and salt) engage the same pleasure center in the brain as alcohol and certain drugs. What had long been suspected has pretty much been confirmed by PET scan imagery technology: highly palatable foods are addictive, and, like other addictive substances, we can develop a tolerance for a food’s palatability over time and require more of that food to get the same effect. In other words, we crave more sugar, more juice, or more salty snacks, etc.
With the current paradigm, wherein children are weaned on highly processed drinks, meals, and snacks, the level of palatability starts off high. Children quickly become accustomed to eating high fructose corn syrup instead of naturally-occurring sugars from fruit. With the increase in frequency of consumption of these high-sugar foods, the child’s tolerance builds up very fast.
I talk with mothers all the time about how their children “are always hungry” or “eat so much”. This happens because it takes more input (food) to produce the brain’s “feel-good” chemical output. I have three very normal, typical children who would choose a candy bar over fruit any given day, and they do (on occasion) eat these highly palatable foods. But I talk pretty straight to them about what these foods can do, as I would talk to them about any other potential threat to their safety and health, and it helps them to compartmentalize these foods. I also strongly urge parents to refrain from referring to these foods as “treats” or “goodies” and especially from using them as rewards, as that increases the child’s desire and motivation to eat them.
LR: How does the SnackTime Survival Kit work?
DP: The SnackTime Survival Kit is the very first system that engages the entire family in the process of building healthy eating habits. It increases the availability of healthier foods in the home, limits the occasions to snack to just 3 times per day, and teaches children (and their parents!) healthy food preferences and eating behaviors.
Each morning, children (as young as toddlers) choose up to 3 snacks from the deck of 33 snack cards. Parents set the snack time clocks and attach the snack card, and the daily schedule is set. The children actually take it from there; when they see that their snack time clock matches the working clock, they know it’s their snack time. When they start begging for a snack in between, they are redirected to the clock board. In addition to learning healthy eating behaviors, this system also empowers children with control and personal responsibility.
This product is an excellent tool for parents to guide their child along the path of building healthy habits regardless of their own nutritional knowledge or know-how. And it’s effortless: the snack cards provide parents with great information and education that gradually transform the home food environment. The snack cards are color-coded on the back. Green indicates the healthiest snacks; yellow indicates snacks that incorporate some processed foods but also includes healthy tips for modifying and making them healthier. Five “red cards”, which do not contain a picture and are only intended for education, contain the high-risk, highly processed/palatable “snack foods” that put kids at risk for obesity.
LR: How can parents explain to young children the importance of healthy eating—especially when, for instance, a child gets upset because her friends are allowed to eat junk food while she is not.
DP: We have to be straight with them from the start. Explaining why these foods are unhealthy is essential for children to understand. I think we underestimate how receptive children are to learning about the consequences many of these foods can have on their health. It’s important, however, that parents not emphasize weight as the reason these foods are not healthy. Instead, focusing on how (for example) sugar and certain “fake” ingredients (colors and chemicals) can make us feel tired and even a little sad after we eat them and how, over time, these types of food affect how we perform on the field and even in the classroom. But just “banning” or “denying” these types of food without explaining why only builds the desire to eat them even more.
LR: What are the most important things a pregnant woman can do to give her baby a healthy start, even before the child is born?
DP: We now know that a mom’s diet during pregnancy has an immediate and long-lasting effect on her unborn baby’s food preferences and even metabolism. Studies done at the Monell Chemical Institute in Philadelphia have shown that the flavors from the mom’s diet seeps into the amniotic sac and actually “flavors” the amniotic fluid. Babies have been studied on ultrasound interacting with the flavors, which, because the baby does not receive nutrition through this fluid, is driven purely by preference. On ultrasound, babies show an inherent preference for sugar (inhaling and swallowing the fluid) and an aversion to bitter/sour tastes (pursed lips). However, babies born from mothers who ate a diet high in particular vegetables showed a quicker acceptance of them once introduced to them later on in infancy. The same can be said for “junk food”. We also know from animal studies that babies born of mothers who ate a diet high in highly processed/palatable foods had babies who were actually metabolically “wired” to be more stimulated by these types of foods (more dopamine receptors in their brains).
What’s important for pregnant mothers to understand is that a fetus’s metabolism is “custom-designed” for survival in the environment it’s about to be born into, and the input from this environment is through the mom’s diet. If she eats too little (according to studies of offspring born to mothers who were pregnant during times of famine), their metabolism is programmed to store fat more readily than normal. The same goes for women who gain too much weight. So, to answer the question—eat a balanced diet; try and incorporate as many vegetables as possible; and avoid frequent consumption of highly processed/palatable foods. Stay away from sweetened beverages as much as possible, and try to keep weight gain within the range recommended by your doctor.