In recent years, various media outlets including the BBC, Chicago Tribune and Live Science have looked at studies showing, essentially, that healthy eating habits begin at home — as do bad ones. Unfortunately, the media's focus was not so much on the problem of childhood obesity or what can be done to resolve it, but rather on the assignation of blame. Harsh headlines pointed at parents, and the real message — that children tend to eat the same things as their parents — got lost in the shuffle.
A surefire way to get kids to not do something is to tell them they have to do it. We've seen this play out in everything from laws intended to deter kids from smoking to legislation such as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 intended to get schoolchildren to eat fresh fruit and vegetables at lunchtime.
Simply making healthy food swaps on a school menu isn't going to encourage a child to eat an apple instead of a decadent chocolate brownie. So, yes, it is up to parents and guardians to encourage their children to eat healthier at home. But putting parents and guardians on the defensive by blaming them for childhood obesity isn't exactly the way to get them on board. Just as telling a kid to stop smoking will probably elicit a response of "Make me," so telling somebody that he or she is being a bad parent is probably only going to elicit anger.
Rather than tell parents they are doing it wrong, the media's focus should have been on the studies' findings: that the sooner you teach your child healthier eating habits, the greater the chances those habits will stick throughout the rest of their lives. In fact, it's a double-win, because parents who may not have the best diets will be encouraged to eat healthier, too. And who doesn't want to increase their lifespan and not have to worry about coping with chronic diseases in the future?
While it's ideal to get your child hooked on apples instead of cookies while he or she is still very, very young, it's never too late to get them on the path to healthier living. A good way to start is to make it a team effort. Show kids that it's not about forbidding them to suddenly not have potato chips but rather that all of you are simply snacking on grapes or unbuttered popcorn now.
The focus shouldn't be on deprivation — nor should it be on restrictions. "When you're trying to break an unhealthy food habit," says Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN, in an article for Eat Right, part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, "forbidding certain foods that are already in the home may lead to behavioral problems such as tantrums and sneaking food."
Rather than throwing away all the sugary treats and junk food and not keeping them in the house, make healthy food swaps to show your kids they can still enjoy a delicious snack — it just happens to be one that's nutrient-rich and healthy. That shift in perspective can make all the difference.
Of course, kids will be kids. Even parents who successfully get their children to eat their greens and not indulge in greasy fries all the time can't really stop them from indulging once they are out in the real world. You can't throw a rock without hitting a fast-food restaurant. That's why legislation like the Healthy Happy Meals bill is so important, and arguably smarter than legislation like the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
As we reported a couple weeks ago, the bill, first proposed by City Council member Benjamin J. Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Roosevelt Island, would require fast food meals that target children — by including toys or other promotional items — to include a serving of fruit, vegetables or whole grain. In addition, the meals must be no more than 500 calories — "with less than 35 percent of calories coming from fat, less than 10 percent coming from saturated fat and under 10 percent from added sugars — and have a maximum of 600 milligrams of sodium."
It's a strategy that might just work because it makes the fast-food option healthier while still presenting the meal as an indulging reward.