The experience of homelessness can negatively impact someone’s nutritional status for many reasons ranging from simply not having enough food, to being forced to choose foods that are cheaper but less nutritious. As a result, children and families experiencing homelessness are at nutritional risk including:
(1) Increased risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies;
(2) Consumption of insufficient calories; and
(3) Risk of obesity and associated health conditions.
This third point is unique, since obesity is often associated with overeating. However, this is most often not the case with people experiencing homelessness. The varied eating patterns that happen when there is very low food security contribute to obesity. When very little food is eaten, the body goes into starvation mode. Then when food does become available, the tendency is to binge on it due to extreme hunger. The body’s response is to store away these calories as fat in preparation for another period of starvation. So it is really the feast or famine nature of food availability that contributes to the obese state. Because of this, people may be obese and still starving.
When children and their families come to Alpha House it is up to us—volunteers and staff—to help them in every way we can. One of the best things we can do for families when preparing their meals everyday is to prepare the healthiest meals we can. This contributes to improved physical health, so families can focus on other essential aspects of their lives.
When trying to make sure you provide a “healthy” meal, consider three things:
(1) Include plenty of fruits and vegetables—Adding fruits and vegetables to meals is especially important to increase the intake of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
(2) Decrease fats—Reducing the intake of excess fats is important because fats add a lot of unneeded calories to one’s diet. In addition, too much saturated fat (found in meat and dairy) can be harmful to your heart. Beyond being aware of the type of fat, try to reduce the overall amount. Consider using cooking methods that do not require as much fat—steaming, poaching, and baking for example, instead of frying.
(3) Minimize excess sugars—When sugar is eaten in excess, it contributes to weight gain. Sugary and fatty foods also displace healthier foods from the diet. This is especially true for children, whose stomachs are smaller. If they fill up on sweets, they will have little room left for other food. In addition, if a child is accustomed to sweet, rich and salty food, they will be less likely to eat or even try the healthy foods that often have more subtle flavors.
In an attempt to improve the health of the families and respect the wishes of the parents we would like to serve fruit for dessert on weeknights and enjoy other desserts on the weekends as a treat. For ideas and recipes of “healthier” desserts that kids like please see the Recipe section of our website.