21 February 2000 --
For many parents, helping kids to develop healthy eating habits is a struggle, and with more women working full time even health-conscious parents are finding it easy to slip up so everybody loses control.
"A lot of parents don't want to struggle with the issues so they give up, letting kids make their own choices," says Jane Rees, director of nutrition service/education in adolescent medicine and lecturer in paediatrics at the University of Washington schools of Medicine and Public Health. "But children's judgement is less mature and they still depend on parents to guide them."
Since children are most influenced by their families during pre-school years, it's best to start training them as soon as they can talk. Research has shown that cardiovascular disease can begin very early, with hardening of arteries linked to a high-fat diet.
Parents should carefully read food labels to check nutrients and ingredients. Most children are attracted to the advertising and packaging of highly sugared cereals. Rees suggests fitting them in occasionally, while the whole family usually eats less processed cereals with low sugar content. Although it's a myth that children get hyped up by eating too much sugar, sugary food is still bad for oral health and can get stored as fat, as well as exacerbate diabetic conditions, says Rees. However, completely denying children sugar will only make it more tempting.
During their pre-school years, teach children how to set the table, and take them grocery shopping to let them choose some fruits and vegetables, as well as the occasional treats, advises Rees. "You will see their capabilities grow astronomically," she says. "However, if parents don't follow the natural signs that kids are ready to help, they will lose the window of opportunity."
Developing children's attitude toward food should be similar to teaching them how to handle money - by giving them growing responsibility along with judicious access. If children are properly prepared, once they enter school they are more likely to make healthy food choices. They will probably experiment some, but they will have a preference for fresh foods like fruits and vegetables along with foods like French fries, says Rees.
What about changing the diet of children who have already fallen into the junk food habit? Once they reach 10 or 12, it's very difficult to change their habits or coerce them into eating healthier foods. Rees suggests calling a family meeting to rationally discuss steps for everyone to take and identifying the easiest things to change first, making sure the children eat foods from all the right categories. If they learn to eat a well-balanced diet, they won't need vitamin supplements, she says.
"Nutritional guidance won't work unless you have built up good sense over time," says Rees. "However, even children who have developed a taste for nutritious food may change when they reach teenage years. Teenagers like to experiment with everything, including risky food behaviour. They might gravitate toward highly processed foods, but once they become older and more independent they are likely to return to the healthy habits they had growing up."
Other common problems among teenagers include girls who may view food as a threat to slimness, or boys who take muscle-building supplements. Also, about 25 percent to 40 percent of teenagers are overweight, mostly from lack of exercise in combination with eating too much fat and sugar. This problem can turn into an emotional one and become a vicious circle - eating, or starving, to cope with unhappiness. "If you see a real eating problem and there is anger and conflict, seek professional intervention," advises Rees.
Health Beat, University of Washington
Date reviewed: 18 February 2000