You don’t need to be Jamie Oliver to figure out what is going on with children’s diets – but his efforts certainly helped to pull the candyfloss from our eyes: children in England are eating plenty of snacks high in fat, salt and sugar, but only one quarter eats their recommended minimum 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. This can be problematic, because not only could it lead to nutritional deficiencies, but also to disproportionate weight gain.
Unfortunately, it is not the case that children simply ‘outgrow’ their ‘puppy-fat’; the vast majority of overweight children grow into overweight teenagers and potentially obese adults. This is because people naturally put on about 2 pounds per year as they age (unless they do something about it, of course) – and the higher the ‘starting weight’ is, the higher the chances are that people shift up across the weight spectrum as they get older. Furthermore, people who become overweight or obese early in life are often more severely affected by illnesses linked with an unhealthy weight, such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
This is why it is important to figure out what it is that makes children eat their greens (and all those other healthy fruit and veggies, even if cooking like Jamie isn’t your thing). It has long been known that many different factors such as inherited taste preferences, family eating habits or the amount of time spent watching TV are important when looking at reasons why children eat (or don’t eat) certain foods; but rarely has research looked at factors related to healthy and unhealthy eating habits at the same time in the same group of families.
In this study, the researchers were interested in the actual foods children in England eat (as opposed to specific nutrients, such as vitamins). The researchers had records of what children and their parents ate from several hundred families, along with information on factors which may influence what they eat. They decided to look in particular at factors which affected how much fruit, vegetables, unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks children consume; focusing on preschool-aged children – as they are not yet strongly influenced by their peers, and are more dependent on eating what their caregivers provide for them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that when children liked the taste of fruit and veggies it predicted how much of these they ate. However, what is more important, they also found that parents’ consumption of either fruit, vegetables, unhealthy snacks or sweetened drinks was a very important indicator of how much children ate of these foods. This might be not only because caregivers may feed children what they themselves eat, but also because children tend to copy adults’ behaviour – so if mum eats healthily, children will be more likely to want to eat healthily too. Of course, that is also true for unhealthy eating habits – which is why not having junk foods in the home in the first instance can help. Because it was mainly mothers who filled out the questionnaires, these results focused only on mothers.
Furthermore, praising children for eating fruit and veggies was a good indicator of how much children ate, and monitoring the unhealthy snacks children eat was linked with them eating less of these and more fruit and vegetables. The amount of time children spent watching TV was also an indicator of children eating unhealthy snacks and having sweetened drinks, but it had no impact on their consumption of fruit and vegetables.
The research provides a little more evidence on how eating habits are transmitted within a family. It highlights that different strategies need to be used in order to increase the amount of healthy foods vs. decreasing amounts of unhealthy foods children eat.
So, ultimately, if you want your children to eat their greens, you might not have any choice but to take a bite too and start singing their praises, and if you really want to cut down on their junk intake then get rid of it from within your home and turn off the telly – and at last Jamie will be happy.