Friday, March 23, 2012

Encouraging Healthy Eating in Children

      Since writing this post about my family's experiment/experience with only eating organic foods for one week, I have really been analyzing what I feed my family and what changes, if any, should be made to ensure that Q-ball will be eating foods that are best for her as she continues to eat more and more solids. I've read The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Unhealthy Truth and countless blogs (some of the most informative and/or fun: 100 Days of Real Food, Cookus Interruptus, and Food Politics.)  I've also participated in several Slow Food groups meetings sponsored by our local natural parenting group and have learned to make kefir and yoghurt. I'm even trying my own sourdough using the methods from Wild Breads. And, I've talked to trusted friends and family about their ideas and habits involving healthy eating.  But, I realized I hadn't done my usual "straight to the source" research method! I found a lot of information to share- some of which really surprised me. I've actually decided to devote two Science Friday posts to this topic.  This Science Friday post will generally discuss parental influence in developing children's eating habits.  And, a next Friday's post will discuss how a mother's eating habits can affect children's eating habits. 
    To start with, as anyone who has children knows, infants enter this world driven by physical needs- especially that of food!  While infants certainly cannot feed themselves, they do recognize and make known when they are hungry. The AAP recommends that mothers nurse infants "on-demand," i.e. whenever they show signs of hunger. By making this recommendation, the AAP is acknowledging that infants know best when and how much to eat.  Studies have found that young children can regulate their own caloric intake.  In one study, children who drank high-calorie energy drinks early in the day, naturally ate less at lunch, while those that had similar looking drink with few calories in the morning, naturally consumed more energy dense food.  But, as I imagine anyone reading this can attest, our ability to self-regulate, defined as the ability to override an impulse, food consumption is lost overtime (I can certainly attest as the majority of the research for this was completed while I was indulging in a lack-of-sleep induced/overly caffeinated chocolate binge...) This lost of control can be attributed to family's and society's influence on shaping habits as a means of socialization. Researchers have discovered that in regards to eating, parents socialize their children in three ways:
  1. "Interactive partners"- model behavior and convey values and ideals through daily interactions; (Studies show the following: children are more likely to try new foods if their parents are more likely to try new foods, and children whose parents eat more fruits and veggies are likely to also eat more fruits and veggies.)
  2. "Direct instructors"- tell children what foods are healthy and what are junk; reinforce (positively and negatively) children for selecting different types of foods
  3. "Providers of opportunities"-  grant or restrict the opportunities and situations to have different types of foods (One study found that just the accessibility of fruits and vegetables in a home accounted for 35% of the difference in consumption of these foods.)
    Photo credit:
      Just reading this information might lead one (like me) to think, "Okay, this won't be too hard, I'll just offer Q-ball healthy choices and keep her away from items that are not as healthy."  Well, unfortunately, the research shows that it is not that simple.
    First of all, as many parents know from experience, kids love sugar.  Really, really love it. And, research seems to show this is a biologically motivated preference that lasts until adolescence.  When children and adults were both given combinations of water and sugar to find the balance that tasted the best, adults liked the ratio that equated to about a soft drink. Kids never maxed out on the sugar. There was literally so much at the end of the experiment, that the sugar didn't even dissolve!  This kind of love and biological wiring makes it hard for a parent to make cabbage look appealing.

    Again, this might lead you to believe that you should just ban sugar.  But, studies have found that not allowing children access to snack foods or even limiting access to snack foods (ice cream, cookies, and chips- oh my!) will actually lead to overeating when the kids do get their hands on them. 
Photo credit:
    Restricting bad foods is not the only method of controlling children's eating habits.  Parents are also famous for encouraging their kids to "take a few more bites" or in some cases "Eat MORE!" healthy foods.  Well, this, too, can have negative effects.  In one study, under parental pressure, 83% of children ate more than they would have. While this may sound great, especially if it meant more healthy food, in reality, forcing more food is simply weakening children's ability to self-regulate. As was previously stated, children know how much of to eat.  But, over time, children gradually lose this ability.  Another study gives different portion sizes of mac & cheese to children ranging in age from 2 to 5.  While the 2-year-olds, simply stopped eating when they were full, the 5-year-olds would continue to eat based on portion size.
    Over the long-term, pressure children to eat healthy foods can even backfire.  Although the short-term effect of pressure to eat results in more food eaten, in the long-term, it is children that are not pressured to eat that eat more healthy foods, according to one study.  Studies have found that when children are pressured to eat healthy foods, they are more likely to dislike them as adults and have negative reactions to different types of foods.
   So, what's a parent to do??  The studies seem to agree on the following:
  1. Trust your child! If he says he is full, he is full!  Children have different rates of growth and body shapes that can influence food intake. Before taking action on your own, talk to your doc if you are concerned about food input.
  2. Offer lots of different healthy foods.
  3. But, don't state that foods are off-limits.  Allow children practice moderation with treats.
  4. Involve children in shopping and food prep.  Use this as a teaching opprotunity.
  5. Set a good example!  Parental influence seemed to be the biggest theme in all studies. If you want your child to eat fruits and veggies you have to eat fruits and veggies!
     If you want to learn more about a mom's habits can influence her children's eating habits, check back next Friday!

How do you encourage healthy eating at home? Do you think your child has the ability to self-regulate? 

American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Breastfeeding. (2009). Sample hospital breastfeeding policy for newborns. Retrieved from
Galloway, A., Fiorito, L., Francis, L., & Birch, L. (2006). "Finish your soup": Counterproductive effects of pressuring children to eat on intake and affect.  Appetite, 46. 318-323.
Kral, T. & Rauh, E.M. (2010). Eating behaviors of children in the context of family environment. Physiology and Behavior, 100. 567-573.
Kroen, G. (2011, September 26). Kids sugar cravings might be biological. Retrieved from 


  1. This is such a fantastic, helpful post! Thanks for doing this research, and giving such a useful summary. As a breastfeeding mom, I have been observing the ability to self-regulate food intake since day one, but much of this - like the research on sugar in childhood was new to me, and quite interesting.

  2. Thanks! I'm glad it's useful. I was really surprised by some of the findings too! And, I must say that I, personally, like the idea of treats sometimes!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...