How to Inspire Healthy Eating Habits at a Young Age
Since the 1970’s, the obesity rate for children in the United States has more than tripled. Today, one in five children age 6-19 is battling with obesity. That is 20 percent, a drastic figure when you consider it is not only the extra weight these children have to deal with. Childhood obesity has both immediate and long term effects ranging from depression to serious diseases that could potential pose a threat to their lives if not addressed.
To paint a clearer picture of the severity of this problem that is only getting worse, let’s look at the physical, social and mental challenges these children face. Children with obesity are at a higher risk of getting asthma, having sleep apnea, and dealing with bone and joint problems. At school, obese children are bullied and teased by their pears and with the advancements in technology this harassment can come home with them and is often undetected by parents. This behavior can lead overweight children to feel isolated, depressed and develop a low sense of self-worth. Obesity as a child is often an inclination that the youth of our generation will also fight this battle as adults with even more serious consequences such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndromes, and various types of cancers.[i] Is this really the direction we are headed?
What can we do to prevent this?
Many factors attribute to childhood obesity ranging from genetics and social and individual psychology to eating habits, environment and physical activity. While not all factors can be controlled, we can take positive steps in educating our children about nutrition and help them to establish healthy eating habits.
Psychologists Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman found that teaching children the importance and value of healthy eating and how various foods affect their bodies drives kids to voluntarily be more aware of their food choices. Findings published in the journal called Psychological Science demonstrates through their research that young ones can in fact understand a conceptual approach to nutrition, that their minds can comprehend healthy eating principles. We, as a society, need to embrace this natural curiosity and help children create healthy eating habits from the start and have a positive relationship with food that promotes an active, whole food lifestyle. [ii]
Gripshover and Marksman developed five story books delving into key concepts as they relate to food. These concepts were:
The Importance of Variety
How Digestion Works
The Food Groups and Food Pyramid
Characteristics of Nutrients
How Nutrients Help the Body Function Properly
The research showed that the children that had the books read to them more than doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables during snack time. This not only demonstrates they can comprehend difficult material, but they can put it into action with positive results. These figures are in comparison to those that did not have the story books read to them.
How can we take the findings in this research and implement it on a grassroots level?
We don’t need to locate these books exactly, but rather take a proactive approach in educating our children, the youth of today on the necessity of establishing a healthy relationship with food. According to PBS Parents, this can be done by:[iii]
Pull up a chair to the counter and have a bowl and spoon ready for mixing or ask for help when planning the dinner menu. Take the children along grocery shopping. Kids will feel invested in the process and more likely to want to jump into help. Even toddlers too young to help with the grocery list can answer simple questions, bananas or apples? soup or salad? feta or goat cheese?
- Teach Kids Where Foods Come From
Go beyond the grocery store shelves, straight to the source; take your kids to the local farmers market or pick strawberries in June
- Have Healthy Snacks Readily Available
Have foods you want your children to eat available. Limiting the processed foods and opting for wholesome options like trail mix, a bowl of mixed berries and granola, or celery sticks with nut butter will curb their taste buds from wanting high sodium or super sugar snacks.
- Allow Children the Freedom of Choice
Of course it is not practical to make separate meals for everyone in your family, but try the do-it-yourself approach to a base meal. For example, tacos are a great option. Prepare all of the accoutrements, i.e. whole wheat tortillas, grilled chicken, shredded cheese, guacamole, salsa, sautéed bell peppers and let each individual decide how to dress their taco. Providing options helps children identify with their food preferences but also gives parents a sense of control what is going into their children’s’ bellies.
- Offer Healthy Drink Options
Steer clear of sugary sodas or high energy drinks, rather offer options that offer nutrients like smoothies or fresh squeezed juices that still retain the pulp of the fruit. Water can also be dressed up with the addition of fruits and vegetables offering a low calorie flavored beverage that will keep the kids hydrated throughout the day.
- Be a Role Model
As parents or aunts and uncles, set a good example. Kids will follow your lead. Let your children see you making healthy food choices like opting for a fresh green salad over a fried chicken sandwich will inspire your children to do the same.
- Start Early and Be Persistent
Even babies are curious. I, for one, am teaching my five month old son to smell the different ingredients I am using to cook with by holding the ingredient up to his nose for a few seconds and telling him what it is used for. Finding creative ways to play off children’s curiosity will motivate them for years to come.
[i] January 29, 2018. Childhood Obesity Facts. CDC. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/obesity/facts.htm.
[ii] Donald, Brooke. July 3, 2013. Kids eat more vegetables after nutrition lessons, Stanford study finds. Stanford News. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/july/kids-healthy-eating-070313.html.
[iii] Encourage Kids to Eat Healthy Foods. PBS Parents. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/food-and-fitness/eat-smart/encourage-kids-to-eat-healthy-food/.