Your interactive family guide to France as recommended by local mums | Last updated 4 weeks ago

Interviews

Nutritionist Mary Brighton

"Treats such as sweets and chocolate are part of a healthy eating plan for children but should be given as a treat not on a daily basis. However, a small piece of dark chocolate or good milk chocolate given as part of the "gouter" (snack) can be healthy and is part of the French snack culture!"

  • Mary Brighton, MS, RD is a website developer and owner/blogger for www.brightonyourhealth.com and www.marybrightonyourhealth.com. Living in Europe for the last 11 years including the last 9 years in France offers an international and European perspective on food, health, nutrition and European living. In addition to researching and writing on healthy living, nutrition and cuisine, Mary has nearly 20 years of experience counseling and serving clients in dietetics through private practice, clinical, outpatient and rehabilitation centers. She has worked as a co-coordinator for a WIC (Women, Infants, Children) public health agency in New Jersey, USA helping to energize her passion for prenatal, pediatric and lactation nutrition. Mary has also worked for over 2 years as a Senior Dietitian with the National Health Service in Nuneaton, United Kingdom.

    How did you come to be working as a nutritionist in France?

    My husband is French and we have 4 children. His job is based here in Pau, France. Writing my blog and counseling clients privately or online is a good family-work balance. It also allows me to work primarily from home.

    The French have a reputation for healthy eating - would you say this is true?
    In general, yes.

    What would your advice be for those planning on getting pregnant? What foods should they eat or avoid?
    If you are planning on getting pregnant take a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin that has 100% daily requirements of folic acid. You can also get folic acid from green leafy vegetables and/or orange juice. Avoiding alcohol is also a good idea before becoming pregnant with complete alcohol avoidance during pregnancy.

    How important is a good diet whilst pregnant?
    Very important for both you and baby to ensure you both get adequate vitamins, minerals and protein. Calcium, iron, folic acid and protein requirements are higher during pregnancy. Ensure good water intake to meet additional fluid requirements. Calorie requirements are also higher during pregnancy but the old adage "eating for two" is not true. In general, eating about 400 extra calories a day, primarily from an extra dairy product (glass milk, yogurt, cheese) is ideal for proper weight gain during pregnancy.

    How important do you think it is to breastfeed your baby? And for how long?
    Breastmilk is the ideal food for baby. Breastfeeding is a personal decision and should be supported and encouraged in the pregnant women. The recommendations are to exclusively breastfeed your baby for 6 months. However, even breastfeeding for the first few days of your babys life or even a month or two is more beneficial for baby and mum than not breastfeeding at all. The first breastmilk produced is called colostrum and contains mums antibodies and other immune system boosting factors. Give your baby this precious gift and breastfeed at the minimum for at least a couple of days. If you wish to breastfeed but run into difficulties such as breast pain, worrying that your baby isnt receiving enough milk, frustration on the part of mum or baby, seek help from a lactation consultant or "La Leche League" which also exist in France.

    When do you believe is the ideal time to wean your baby?
    Weaning baby onto foods but continuing to breastfeed ideally happens around babys 6th month. Weaning baby competely off the breast occurs at a time where both mother and baby are both satisfied to stop. Babys suckling requirements continue through approximately 3 years old. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until children are two years old. Personally, I weaned my kids at one year of age, my son at 15 months old.

    What are the best foods to start a baby on?
    Mushed bananas, rice cereal fortified with iron, carrots.

    Do you believe all foods should be homemade or are there any ready-made baby foods that you would recommend?
    I do not believe that all foods for babies should be homemade. However, making baby food is easy and less expensive than ready-made baby foods. Ready-made baby foods are handy for traveling or just to have on hand as a back-up. I cannot recommend one brand, but a "BIO" or organic babyfood is what I would buy. There is one or two organic brands at the supermarkets in France. "Biologique" is the term in French for organic. Organic babyfood does not have more nutritional value, but may contain less pesticides than non-organic babyfoods.

    How important is it for children to eat healthily and to exercise?
    Children are growing. They need healthy foods and physical exercise to do this properly. Eating healthy and getting adequate physical activity as a child is an "investment" towards being a healthy adult!

    Compared to other countries do you feel that French children on the whole have a healthy lifestyle?
    Observing French children for the last 9 years I can say with certitude that French children have, overall, a healthy lifestyle including healthy diet and good amounts of exercise. However, in France like most industrialized nations, there is still a constant battle to slow the increasing numbers of childhood obesity.

    How common is childhood obesity in France?
    Results of a large national study done in France called the "Étude nationale nutrition santé ENNS, 2006" show 18% of 3-17 year old French children are overweight, with 3.5% of these children obese.

    How nutritional would you say school dinners are in France?
    Comparing to American school dinners (on the www.brightonyourhealth.com blog this was done for 30 lunch days), the French school dinners are healthier, balanced and fresher compared to American school lunches. There are still room for improvements with French school menus, but these dinners supply a good nutritional value to children.

    How common are food allergies among children in France?
    Food allergies affect 8% of French children and this number is rising.

    For many parents, helping children develop healthy eating habits is a struggle. Do you have any tips on how parents can achieve this?
    Start early. Healthy and varied diet during pregnancy plus breastfeeding your baby helps your childs taste development. Unbelievably a fetus can start tasting from 12 weeks gestation! Offer a variety of different foods, especially fruits and vegetables from 6 months of age. Allow a couple of days between trying your baby on new foods to look for food sensitivities. Do not make food a battle. Sometimes it takes up to 20 times for trying a new food before it is accepted by your child. Sit your child down to the table hungry with a good appetite. Eat together as a family and be a good role model at the table. Encourage tasting as a rule at home, and avoid forcing your child to eat everything on their plate or forcing them to eat foods they do not like. And finally, relax. If a child misses a meal because of food refusal, they will make up the calories at the next meal.

    What advice do you have for parents of a fussy eater?
    Using the same advice for tips on helping your child develop healthy eating habits. But in addition, dont make food a battle. Compromise. For example, if your child completely refuses to eat vegetables, offer adequate fruit (5 a day) to compensate. It may just be a stage they are going through. And again, help your child sit at the table and be hungry for food. Cut down on snacks and drinks (water is OK) before main meals. If you are concerned about your childs diet, seek professional advice from a dietitian.

    Should parents read food labels before purchasing food?
    It is a good idea to know how to read food labels and to compare two similar foods for proper buying. For example choosing foods with less simple sugars or fats. If your child has food allergies or food sensitivities, you must know how to read food labels to avoid buying foods with the food allergens in it.

    At what age should parents begin teaching their child the importance of nutrition?
    As early as possible, even if you think your child is not understanding everything you say.

    Do you think a childs performance in school is related to the childs eating habit?
    Studies have shown a direct link between a childs eating habits and their performance in school. In particular, eating breakfast helps a childs concentration and increases their school performance.

    How often should children be allowed treats such as sweets and chocolate?
    Treats such as sweets and chocolate are part of a healthy eating plan for children but should be given as a treat not on a daily basis. However, a small piece of dark chocolate or good milk chocolate given as part of the "gouter" (snack) can be healthy and is part of the French snack culture!

    Can you recommend any healthy French recipes that children might enjoy?
    A French recipe that includes a good portion of vegetables would be considered healthy. Some that come to mind include: Grated Carrot Salad, Lambs Leaf Salad with cubed beets in Vinaigrette, recipes with lentils, Pumpkin Soup, Ratatouille. Any French recipes could be included as part of a healthy childs meal if it is balanced out with a healthy rest of the menu and your child likes the taste! Taste is also important to acceptance of a French recipe or any new foods! Bon Appetit...

    March 2011