A new study by Kansas State University has highlighted the obvious; exposing children to a healthy diet from a young age improves physical and mental health. The researchers highlight that a child’s diet sets the eating habits of the future adult and good eating habits prevent obesity and a range of chronic diseases.
Nearly 1 in 4 children ages 2 to 5 are overweight or obese, said Paula Peters an associate professor of human nutrition and assistant extension director for family and consumer sciences at Kansas State University. The concern is that an obese child is at risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and sleep apnea.
“No parent wants her child to be sick. No parent wants her child to feel like an outsider in social situations, or be teased or bullied because of her weight,” said Kidd the second lead author. “Give the child a wide variety of healthy food options and let her choose which and how much to eat. A child may start by eating nothing or eating too much, but she has an innate ability to know when she’s hungry and when she’s full.”
The researchers recommend that nutrition selection is nutrient dense rather than calorie sense with a diet high in fruits and vegetables not cookies and snacks. Children learn about food when they are exposed to a variety of tastes and food sources. For example a glass of soda and a glass of 100 percent juice may have the same number of calories, but a juice is a healthier choice because it does not contain added sugars, said Kidd, a registered dietitian.
The Center for Disease Control lists the source of empty calories as originating from foods high in added sugars, such as ice cream, cookies, candy, fruit drinks and some breakfast cereals and solid fats such as donuts, pastries, hot dogs, sausages, bacon and regular ground beef, contribute to 40 percent of daily calories for children and adolescents ages 2 to 18 years.
The researchers reccomend the following:
• Do not use food as a reward for good behavior or other achievements. Kidd suggested other awards like reading a book together or playing a child’s favorite game.
• Eat your veggies, Dad. A child learns food habits — what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat, where to eat — from parents.
• Eat with your children so they can see you making good food choices.
• Be aware of what a child is eating away from home. Peters said that more than 25 percent of children ages 2 to 4 are in day care 20 to 40 hours a week. Check out meals and snacks offered to your child.
• Limit screen time — television — that encourages “mindless” eating.
• Avoid putting a child on a diet, even if he or she is slightly overweight. “That sets up the child for issues such as eating disorders later in life,” Kidd said. Instead, offer healthier food options and increase physical activity.
Kidd and Peters also encourage parents to teach their children about healthy food choices in other ways:
• Planning and taking a trip to the grocery store gives a child ownership in food choices. Reading labels and comparing costs offer other lessons.
• Plant a garden. Peters said a child is more likely to eat vegetables he or she helped grow and harvest.
• Cook together. During special time with Mom or Dad in the kitchen the child will learn more than cooking skills.