It has often been said that a house is only as good as its foundation. The same principle holds true in various areas of life, but is especially true of health. Good health in adulthood is established on the foundation of healthy eating habits in childhood. As childhood obesity and related health concerns continue to soar to unprecedented levels, it is time to start inspecting and rebuilding the foundation of America’s health. Instilling good eating habits in children is an essential part of building a strong foundation for a healthy future.
Children’s eating behaviors and food preferences start developing as soon as they begin to transition from breast milk or formula to “real” foods, highlighting the important role parents and caregivers play in building a strong foundation of health. Introducing a variety of flavors and textures in the context of low sugar, high nutrient dense foods such as vegetables and fruits, is important for building an acceptance of and preference for healthy foods that guard against future health problems. Too many foods, marketed for infants and toddlers, are flooded with added sugars, refined grains, unhealthy fats, preservatives and artificial colorings. According to recent data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), “children consume too many high-calorie foods and drinks such as whole milk, fruit juice, sugar-sweetened beverages, dairy and grain desserts, and pasta dishes, which contribute ∼40% of total energy to their diets.” (Birch & Doub, 2014) Sadly, this dietary pattern is similar to the standard adult diet, which has contributed heavily to the current obesity epidemic and related health disparities. Therefore, it should not be a surprise to see children at risk for obesity and other health conditions that stem from poor eating habits.
Early introduction to high sugar foods, especially, is a major roadblock to establishing a strong foundation of health. As sugar consumption continues to increase among adults and subsequently, their children, researchers are scrambling to learn the effects of this trend. High sugar foods not only include sweets and deserts, but also, common foods made with refined flours, such as breads, crackers, pretzels and pastas. Additionally, studies have shown that sweetened beverages such as fruit juices, flavored milk and soda are particularly harmful for children’s health, contributing to unhealthy weight changes and disrupting normal cholesterol and blood sugar levels. A preference for sweet snacks and beverages is established through three avenues of learning: a familiarization with sweet foods through early introduction, observation of parents and caregivers role modeling consumption of sugary snacks and beverages, and associating sweet foods with good behavior through reward.
The impact of the home environment and parental role modeling in the development of children’s eating behaviors should not be underestimated. Children consume most of their calories at home. The environment and choices provided in the home are directly linked with long-term dietary choices and subsequent health. Food prepared outside the home has been shown to be one of the primary sources of excess calories, added sugars, and unhealthy fats contributing to obesity in children. Home-prepared meals not only provide better nutrition, but also offer the opportunity for involving children in food preparation and teaching them how to prepare healthy meals. Children are more likely to consume foods they have been involved in preparing. Therefore, meal preparation at home can provide an excellent context for introducing new, healthy foods to children.
The presence of a family unit during meal times provides an opportunity for role modeling good food choices and portion sizes, while applying necessary guidance in these areas, as well. Contrary to some beliefs, researchers have found that a more authoritative parenting style in food choice and eating behavior has actually been correlated with positive health outcomes in children. This parenting style is actively involved in children’s dietary choices and offerings. In various studies, children who were directed with an authoritative guardian consumed more fruit per day, fewer unhealthy snacks per day, and breakfast more days per week. Additionally, these children were more physically active and had healthier body measurements. Parenting styles that are more responsive to children’s requests or lack direct involvement in children’s dietary choices has been associated with a high intake of unhealthy foods that lacked in adequate nutrients. These conclusions emphasize the importance of adult guidance and direction in building a strong foundation of healthy eating habits in children. Eating together as a family unit provides an ideal context for adequately parenting children in the area of food choice and eating behavior.
As childhood nutrition and health continues to decline, a growing number of researchers are investigating potential causes of this trend and discovering the importance of establishing healthy eating habits early in life. Children are the hope of the future and good health is paramount to a successful future. Therefore, we must not allow the foundation of this country to crumble, but rather, must be diligent in turning the tide of failing health in our nation, by instilling good eating behaviors in children.