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Naturopathic Doctors Changing Children’s Eating Habits for the Better

Amaliya Santiago, Dojo Rojo Amaliya Santiago, Dojo Rojo

Nurturing healthy eating habits for kids is not an easy task. They are bombarded by media messaging for sugary drinks and cereals, crunchy snack foods and nutritionally void sweets. When it comes to getting kids to eat healthy foods, the dinner table scene of parents pleading: “just eat one more bite,” while the child cringes and turns away with tightly closed lips, is all too familiar.

At the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM), we’ve been thinking a lot about these uncomfortable and frustrating moments in parents’ and children’s lives. Childhood is a critical time to establish healthy eating behaviors because it paves the way for healthy eating throughout adolescence and adulthood. A big part of that nurturing is helping children develop food preferences for fruits and vegetables. It’s common for children to be reluctant to eat foods from these important food groups. It is why INM’s Naturally Well children’s culinary nutrition program focuses on teaching kids to be adventure eaters with the help of our colorful animated character Dojo Rojo and a smartphone app that reinforces healthy eating choices with games and storytelling.

The foundational program for Naturally Well was created pre-COVID as an in-person culinary learning class in California, taught by Amaliya Santiago, ND, director of The Integrative Natural Medicine Clinic, with curriculum support from the Food as Medicine Institute (FAME), National University of Natural Medicine. The pandemic put a stop to hands-on learning, so the team at INM pivoted to create a hybrid learning model that is both video and hands-on. The classes are designed to allow for individual or group learning at home, in classrooms, after-school programs or experiential learning for a group of parents and children at a doctor’s office. Each class includes an instructional video, class and take-home recipes, facilitator’s guides, shopping lists, handouts for additional learning, classroom games and 1huddle smartphone app lessons.

Each of the nine videos are led by Dr. Santiago with a FAME nutrition lesson and culinary demonstration with a student helper. Topics include:

Week 1

Whole vs Processed Food & Kitchen Safety: A primer on how to avoid injury, stop the spread of germs in the kitchen, and why it is important to choose whole foods instead of highly processed foods.

Week 2

Avoid the Stigma of Fats: How to tell the difference between good and bad fats and why balanced fat intake is so important to include in our diet.

Week 3

Macronutrients: The importance of protein and carbohydrates from plants and other nutrients such as fiber, vitamin B6, folate, iron, potassium and magnesium.

Week 4

Label Reading: Identify the parts of a food label, focusing on the importance of the ingredient list.

Week 5

Portion Sizes: Learn to understand their ideal portion size and how that may be different than others based on age, size and health goals.

Week 6

Benefits of Breakfast: Healthy options for breakfast to start your day off right.

Week 7

Healthy Digestion: Gut healthy food, and a lesson on the digestive system and why it is essential to overall wellness.

Week 8

Balancing Sugars and Sweeteners: How and why sweeteners should be limited to small amounts and healthy alternatives to artificial sweeteners, high-sugary foods and beverages.

Week 9

Healthy Eating Out: Students will learn how to make wise decisions when eating out, especially when fast food is the only option.

Week 10

Healthy Habits for a Better Life: The benefits of developing, practicing and maintaining healthy habits. Movement, mindfulness and stress reduction are critical skills for healthy youth and adults.

We’ve learned through published research and our own experiences that the more adults can interact with children to teach them cooking skills, about healthy whole foods and make it fun, the more likely kids are to try new foods and increase their intake of vegetables. All Naturally Well classes are plant-based, with proteins from beans, seeds and dairy or milk alternatives from the FAME guidelines. Each class introduces students to vegetables and fruits with which they may not be familiar. Plant-based cooking lessons provide opportunities to try new foods in a fun, non-stressful environment (no dinner-table fussing)—and costs can be kept lower if recipes do not rely heavily on meats and animal proteins. To reinforce the learning, as mentioned, we have some helpers. Our animated character Dojo Rojo travels the world as a healthy eating superhero. Her global adventures are told in a smartphone app from 1huddle.

With the support of our partners at the non-profit Esperança, INM’s pilot launch will help Latino children and adults make healthy lifestyle choices, appreciate the nutritional benefits of foods in their cultural community and introduce them to new foods they may have never considered. This program will measure students’ attitudes, knowledge and awareness about healthy eating at baseline and after the class completion to measure the program’s success.

The Naturally Well program has the potential to raise awareness about healthy eating for kids, foods as medicine and naturopathic medicine to a much greater community. If you know of potential financial supporters, or if your medical practice, clinic or community would like to use the Naturally Well videos for education, please contact the director of the program, Kim Stewart, kim@naturemed.org.

Michelle Simon, PhD, ND President & CEO, Institute for Natural Medicine
In 1992, the leadership core of naturopathic doctors established the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM) as a not for profit organization dedicated to advancing natural medicine. The purpose of the INM is to increase awareness of, broaden public access to, and encourage research about natural medicine and therapies. Among its milestones the INM counts the launch of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC) as an independent organization, leading California’s efforts to obtain licensure, developing an interactive childhood education program focused on healthy eating and lifestyles called Naturally Well in 2017, and expanding residency access by establishing and funding a residency program in 2018. INM has joined forces with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), serving as the charitable arm, to deepen access to naturopathic care, public education and research. Dr. Michelle Simon serves as president and CEO of INM, is a licensed naturopathic physician, clinician, educator, and leader in many organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of health care. In addition to holding a naturopathic doctorate from Bastyr University, she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Simon has served on the boards for the Integrative Healthcare Policy Consortium (IHPC), the AANP and the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI). Dr. Simon also served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee which is part of the Health Technology Assessment program that examines the scientific evidentiary basis for efficacy, safety and cost effectiveness of health care technologies. She was also an invited participant for health care economics at “Summit on Integrative Medicine and the Health of the Public” at the Institute for Medicine (IOM) in 2009. Dr. Simon was recognized as the 2018 Physician of the Year by the AANP.