As parents, it can be hard to get the balance right when it comes to feeding your children. You may be a hard-working single mother that opts for time-efficiency over home-cooked meals, or perhaps you find it too challenging to get your kids to eat their veggies. Whatever the reason is, if you’re noticing that your children prefer fries over fiber and soda over water, it’s your duty to encourage them to eat healthily.
A large–scale study conducted in Australia asked 119 children and 17 parents about their diets to determine why certain children avoid nutrient-rich foods and choose unhealthier food options. The researchers found that the following factors contribute to the problem: a lack of information and awareness, a contradiction between knowledge and behavior, an improper lifestyle balance, the local environment, and barriers to a healthy lifestyle. This information can be used to figure out what you can do as parents to encourage healthier choices.
Information and Awareness
Children like to know things. It’s a tale as old as time, and it’s part of human nature. If you ask someone to do something without explaining why, your request is often refused, regardless of whether you’re six years old or fifty. If you want your child to finish the vegetables on their plate, explain why they should.
The aforementioned study compared this point to smoking cigarettes. Children are more likely to know about the negative impact of smoking than the impact of eating unhealthy food. The idea that explaining why children should eat healthily makes them more likely to do so is supported by a recent study published in the journal of Current Obesity Reports. The COR study found that young children were more likely to eat vegetables if they received more nutrition education, exposure, and sensory learning. When compared to anti-smoking initiatives that use visceral imagery in advertising campaigns, the impact of not eating vegetables isn’t nearly as clear to children.
Contradiction Between Knowledge and Behavior
As parents, you want the best for your children. You often prioritize your children’s needs above your own. You may make a home-cooked, healthy meal for your children, but for yourself it’s a fast-food take-out or a candy bar. Even though you’re making the effort for your children, they will find it difficult to differentiate between your standards for them versus your standards for yourself. If you’re not adhering to the dietary requirements you’ve demanded for your child, why should they adhere to them either?
A study published in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics examined the influence of parental habits on children. The study found that children mirror their parents, particularly with regards to their diet. This mirroring, they concluded, was caused by genetic predispositions, repeated exposure to unhealthy foods, and the social-modeling element of the family system. According to a study conducted by the Journal of Nutrition Education, a child will develop a craving for sugar if its mother repeatedly consumes high-sugar foods during pregnancy and the child’s early life.
Another study found that children naturally choose to increase their consumption of fruits, vegetables, and dairy after observing adults consume these foods. If you want your children to eat healthier, you should also eat healthier.
Children should understand the energy balance model. To remain at a stable weight, a person’s energy intake needs to equal his or her energy expenditure. If more energy is consumed than expended, weight will be gained. The aforementioned study conducted in Australia found that the majority of children believe that a small amount of exercise will compensate for poor food choices. One child from the study thought it was healthy to buy and eat hot chips “every day” since he had to “walk to the shop” to get them.
Children can’t be expected to know what you don’t teach them. They should be taught that maintaining a healthy weight requires a balance between exercise and food intake. Children are more likely to seek healthier food choices when they are given the choice and the factual evidence.
However, it doesn’t mean that all unhealthy food is off the table. When it comes to balance, parents should try to promote healthy food as the standard diet and make nutrient-poor food the exceptional treat. If this balance is reversed and junk food becomes the standard, what motivation does a child have to eat their vegetables?
It has been shown in numerous studies that the food environment of the child predicts their weight. If a child has frequent exposure to fast-food restaurants, research shows that they are more likely to consume and crave fast food. Parents often don’t realize how many advertisements children see on an hourly basis for junk food. These advertisements specifically target children by using friendly animal figures, bright colors, and emotive language.
In one particular study, researchers played one of two cartoons for two sets of children. The first cartoon contained advertisements for junk food, and the second cartoon did not. The children who watched the cartoon with food ads consumed 45 percent more food than the children who watched the cartoon without ads. Ultimately, children can be easily influenced to consume unhealthy food. So, it is important to limit your child’s screen-time or opt for media (such as Netflix) that doesn’t contain advertisements.
Barriers to a Healthy Lifestyle
The best way to fight childhood obesity is to seriously consider what got your child there in the first place. Ask why your child doesn’t want to consume healthy food. What are the barriers? Do they have access to healthy food? Do they have too much access to unhealthy food?
Be realistic and truthful with yourself. Have you lived up to the standards you require for your child? Have you encouraged vegetable consumption, or have you agreed to a drive-through too many times?
For the benefit of your child, try to remove the barriers that are blocking him or her from eating healthily. Remove the junk food from the house and replace it with fruits and healthy snacks. Create home-cooked meals that are rich in flavor and nutrients. Be the change you want your child to see.
Emilina Lomas is a qualified nutritionist and freelance writer. She is originally from London, but she has now relocated to Orange County, California. She completed her undergraduate degree (BSc) in medical anthropology at a top London university and wrote a dissertation about consumption patterns and obesity in the US. She then completed her master’s degree in nutrition and became a qualified nutritionist.