Last week I posted a piece on my website about what I think of as a particularly American, and nutrition-based, solution to a food problem: Change the food not our habits.

I was talking about cheese.  According to a recent The New York Times article, the cheese industry has responded to pressure for people to reduce their intake of sodium and saturated fats by trying to produce a palatable, low fat, low sodium cheese.

It doesn’t sound like the experiment has been that successful.  The president of the Daily Research Institute is quoted in the New York Times as saying that cheese without the fat is basically "an eraser."  Yum.

But even if cheese manufacturers do find a way to produce a delicious low fat, low sodium cheese, replacing real cheese with an inferior tasting, more highly processed product just so we can eat as much cheese as we want is the wrong strategy.   Especially when we think about teaching kids to eat right. 

The idea that we should be able to eat as much as we want of any food is part of our national problem. And it's fostered by the nutrition mentality: If it's nutritious we feel free to go wild.  This isn't just a portion size problem. It's an entitlement problem. 

Still, one reader asked how frequently her daughter should eat cheese. I gave her my typical habits answer: “I don’t have a specific number.  You have to think about how you’re shaping your kids’ taste buds, where they get their cheese, what kind of cheese habit you want them to have, etc.”  I hope this answer helped. 

It’s hard to think about habits when we’re talking about “good” food because it seems like eating healthy food is a healthy eating habit. So here’s a useful exercise to put things into perspective. Let’s compare cheese with chips. Yup. Potato Chips: The ultimate bad boy of the snacking world.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that potato chips are healthier than cheese. I’m not a lunatic (though I think you’ll be surprised by the comparison).  I am going to suggest, however, that the way we think about using chips is the same way we should think about using cheese.

Here we go. Cape Cod Kettle Cooked Potato Chips-Original vs Organic Valley Stringles (Cheddar).

From a nutrition perspective, per each one ounce serving:

  • The chips have more calories (140 vs 110) and less protein (2g vs 7g) than the cheese—making cheese the winner.  But,
  • The chips have less fat (8g vs 9g), especially less saturated fat (.5g vs 6g) and less sodium (150mg vs 170mg)—making chips the winner.  However,
  • The cheese has more calcium (20% vs 0%). Hurray cheese!  Then again,
  • The chips have more Vitamin C (20% vs 0%) and more Iron (2% vs 0%). Go chips!

Compare different chips and different cheese and you’ll get different results.

Should we parse the nutrients this way? Not in my opinion.  However, when we do, it illustrates an important point: Many foods have enough “positive” and enough “negative” nutrients that we can call the game anyway we want.  Interested in maximizing protein? Go with the cheese.  Interested in reducing cholesterol? Go with the chips.

Of course, no one in their right mind would give their children chips because they’ve got less saturated fat than cheese.  People give kids chips because they taste good.  And then they moderate how often their kids should eat chips based on habits.

That’s what happens with “bad” foods. We think about how often our kids should eat them.  “Good” foods get a pass in the frequency-department as if healthy foods can be eaten with impunity.

Maybe it’s because cheese has something “good” to add—protein—that we feel at liberty, not just to eat it on its own, but to slather it onto and bake it into, dare I say, everything: pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, quesadilla, bagels, calzones, crackers.  The list goes on.

But foods that have “good” nutrients can still ruin your kids’ eating habits.  According to the Harvard School of Public Health, cheese is now the leading source of saturated fat in the American diet. 

The simple truth is that children who get used to eating a lot of cheese grow up into adults who eat a lot of cheese. Either that, or they grow up into adults who struggle to cut back on eating cheese. That’s what happens with habits.  

With kids and eating habits, though, there’s something else to consider.  When kids get used to the taste and texture of cheese they can become less open to the taste and texture of other, healthier foods, like the apples and asparagus that parents are always trying to push.  I made this Taste Shaper argument in an earlier post.

In her book What to Eat, noted nutritionist Marion Nestle recommends cheese be eaten, "in tiny amounts - gratings, shavings, slivers and light smears, not scarfed by the half-pound or slathered a half-inch high on pizza," (p. 96). This is good advice.

We like to think that kids have some protected period of time when what they eat doesn't matter.  They don't. To the contrary, conditions leading to heart disease are now known to start in childhood, and habits established early in life tend to stick around.

© 2012 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.

About the Author

Dina Rose Ph.D.

Dina Rose, Ph.D., is a sociologist and the author of the book It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating and the blog It's Not About Nutrition.

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