How children learn to eat may be just as important as what they eat, according to a study
published in the Journal of the American Heart Association
Most of us are born with an innate ability to listen to inner cues about when we are hungry and when we are full, a process known as self-regulation. But many factors wind up influencing our eating habits, including how we are fed at a young age. Research finds that parents and caregivers inevitably shape children’s eating behaviors—for example, by how responsive they are to a child’s hunger and signs of fullness; what, if any, boundaries are set around food choices; and whether the child is given some freedom to make his or her own decisions about food selection or if demands are placed on eating.
According to the writing group, allowing children some autonomy to choose what, and especially how much, to eat within an environment that offers healthy food options encourages children to take ownership of their decisions about food. This may help them develop eating patterns that have been linked to a healthy weight over a lifetime.
The article reviews the latest evidence and outlines strategies that parents and caregivers can use to create a healthy food environment for young children to promote positive eating and limit power struggles. In doing so, the authors said parents can help lower the chance their children will be overweight or develop heart disease later in life.
In general, the research suggests that parents and caregivers not focus only on how much a child eats or his or her body weight. Parents should help children eat healthy foods by:
- Providing consistent mealtimes
- Allowing children to choose their own foods from a selection of nutritious, healthy options
- Serving healthy or new foods alongside foods they already enjoy eating
- Being a role model by eating a variety of healthy foods with the child
- Paying attention to verbal and non-verbal cues that a child is hungry or full—and teaching kids to recognize when they’re full
- Not pushing children to eat more than they desire
- Repeatedly offering a variety of healthy foods especially for so-called picky eaters
Of course, these steps might be easier said than done. Some younger children may not like certain food textures or tastes and some families may have a hard time accessing or affording healthful food options.
Researchers say the data show it is a balance. Being overly controlling about when and what a child eats (authoritarian approach) is associated with children eating more when they are not hungry and eating less healthy foods that are higher in calories. Giving children free rein (laissez-faire or indulgent approach) does not provide enough guidance or boundaries and has been linked to children becoming overweight or obese. In addition, healthy eating is a family affair.
Setting a good example is important. More than 1 in 5 toddlers and preschoolers are overweight or obese, putting them at higher risk of heart disease.
Researchers stressed that many other factors could influence food choices, including socioeconomic status and any food insecurity, which should be considered in future research and policy development.