• By Jessica DeGore
  • In Uncategorized
  • August 28, 2019

Healthy Eating and Children… What Do They See??

 

We know that parents have a large impact on their children’s dietary preferences and they can feel pressure to raise “good eaters” and overall healthy kids. This pressure causes parents to push fruits & vegetables, lean proteins, and whole-grains onto their kids, while demonizing refined-grains, processed foods, and added sugars. As adults we see these as the “Dos and Don’ts” of healthy eating. This can seem like the guidance kids need, but it may do more harm than good.

The Way Children View “Health” Foods

Words like “healthy” or “organic” give kids the impression that [insert food here] is not going to be very delicious because it’s good for them. For example, which sounds better to you: a chocolatey, fudgy brownie OR a black bean brownie made with no refined sugar? The choice is obvious from a taste perspective for adults and children alike (even though, I also love a good black bean brownie from time to time).  Children are immersed in the same culture so they tend to have the same feelings towards these “healthier” foods.

While teaching kindergarteners about healthy eating this summer I saw how kids were affected firsthand.  The students would see the recipes labeled as “healthy” they would often be reluctant to taste those foods. For example, we made a green smoothie and their reaction was “Yuck!” Fortunately, I was able to use a bit of reverse psychology by saying, “But the smoothie has a lot of fruit in it, and fruit has sugar! Its sweet and very tasty!” That simple reframing was all it took for them to open their mind and try it. The bottom line is that Children want food that tastes good. They want to enjoy what they eat. And don’t we all?

Impact Over Intention

As a current dietetics student and future health professional, I can see how both the chocolatey, fudgy brownie and the black bean brownie could fit into a balanced diet. However, our current wellness culture does not agree. Instead, society tends to categorize foods, putting them into boxes like “good” and “bad.”  Regular brownies are bad; black bean brownies are good. End of story. And this carries on throughout all foods.

Labeling foods as “good” and “bad”, or “clean” and “not clean,” seems to make healthy eating easy to understand for children (and quite frankly, ourselves too). However, I am a firm believer of impact over intention. Even if the intention is pure, ultimately the impact is more important.

These types of labels may seem like an effective way to create healthy eaters, but this approach actually creates a diet-focused culture that promotes food shame, food guilt, and disordered eating.

Bringing Weight into the Picture

In today’s health dialogue, good nutrition is often related to weight management. TV commercials, magazine covers, and even friends on Facebook plug new diets. Health and weight seem so interconnected, so we intuitively pass this logic onto our children. Although this may seem helpful and harmless, it actually can be very damaging to children’s mental health.

Body image worries are increasingly evident in very young children. One study discovered that “By age 6, girls especially, start to express concerns about their own weight or shape.”1 There are many factors that can play into a child’s relationship with food and their body. Attitudes about diet and weight in the family household have a singular influence. Research has found that “children of mothers who are overly concerned about their weight are at increased risk for modeling their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.”2

Knowledge is the antidote. Being aware of our impact on kids is a great first step in improving both your relationship with food, and your child’s relationship with it as well.

Eating Disorders

Technology gives us constant access to fad dieting information, misinformed nutrition tips, and unrealistic images of beauty and health.  Unfortunately, access can be toxic. Dieting and eating disorders are on the rise.

When distorted ideals are pressed in the media and at home, the urge to diet and hyper-regulate nutrition and weight becomes more normalized. In fact, it has been found that “over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.”3 Other studies also suggest that between 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting or other forms of weight control behaviors.5

The intention behind these behaviors are often not malicious. In a culture that equates health and body weight, any type of diet or weight management can appear to be beneficial. However, the impact of the dieting message, even when it appears to be “health focused,” can be very detrimental. In fact, studies have shown that dieting, of any kind, is the most important predictor of a developing eating disorder.3

Teaching Healthful Eating, While Not Encouraging Disordered Eating

This can be a hard balance to strike. Good nutrition is very important for overall health, but if taken too far, can also negatively impact both mental and physical health. We want to show our children that healthy eating can be delicious and fun, but we also want our children to have a good relationship with food and their bodies. We want to teach them that it is important to have a balanced and nutritious diet, but it is also important to truly love what you eat, love your body, and feel completely satisfied.

Here are some tips to teach children about healthy eating, while leaving the shame and judgment around food choices out of the message:

 

References

1Smolak, L. (2011). Body image development in childhood. In T. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.),  Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention (2nd ed.).New York: Guilford.
2Andreyeva, T., Puhl, R. M. and Brownell, K. D. (2008), Changes in Perceived Weight Discrimination Among Americans, 1995–1996 Through 2004–2006. Obesity, 16: 1129–1134. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.35
3Golden, N. H., Schneider, M., & Wood, C. (2016). Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1649
4Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m, Like, SO Fat!.New York: Guilford.
 5Boutelle, K., Neumark-Sztainer, D.,Story, M., &Resnick, M. (2002).Weight control behaviors  among obese, overweight, and nonoverweight adolescents. Journal of Pediatric Psychology,27, 531-540. 
Neumark-Sztainer, D., &Hannan, P. (2001). Weight-related behaviors among adolescent girls and boys: A national survey. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 154, 569-577.
Wertheim, E., Paxton, S., &Blaney, S. (2009).Body image in girls.In L. Smolak & J. K. Thompson (Eds.), Body image, eating disorders, and obesity in youth: Assessment, prevention, and treatment (2nd ed.) (pp. 47-76). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. 

 

Natalie Colantuono is a current Nutrition and Dietetics student at the University of Pittsburgh. Her areas of interest in dietetics include eating disorder recovery, Health at Every Size, intuitive eating, and overall promoting a healthy relationship with food and your body.