Dear parents, kindly take note. Researchers have found that healthy eating behaviours in childhood may reduce the risk of, overweight, obesity and cardiovascular disease later in life. Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the study focused on providing evidence-based strategies for parents and caregivers to create a healthy food environment for young children that supports the development of positive eating behaviours and the maintenance of a healthy weight in childhood.
Allowing children to choose what and especially how much to eat within an environment composed of healthy options encourages children to develop and eventually take ownership of their decisions about food and may help them develop eating patterns linked to a healthy weight for a lifetime, according to the study authors.
“Parents and caregivers should consider building a positive food environment centred on healthy eating habits, rather than focusing on rigid rules about what and how a child should eat,” said study researcher Alexis C Wood from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, US.
The statement suggests that parents and caregivers should be positive role models by creating an environment that demonstrates and supports healthy food choices, rather than an environment focused on controlling children’s choices or highlighting body weight.
Parents and caregivers should encourage children to eat healthy foods by: providing consistent timing for meals, allowing children to select what foods they want to eat from a selection of healthy choices, serving healthy or new foods alongside foods children already enjoy.
Regularly eating new, healthy foods while eating with the child and demonstrating enjoyment of the food, paying attention to a child’s verbal or non-verbal hunger and fullness cues and avoiding pressuring children to eat more than they wish to eat.
The researchers noted that some parents and caregivers may find it challenging to allow children to make their own food decisions, especially if the children become reluctant to try new foods and/or become picky eaters.
These behaviours are common and considered normal in early childhood, ages 1 to 5 years, as children are learning about the tastes and textures of solid foods.
Imposing rigid, authoritarian rules around eating and using tactics such as rewards or punishments may feel like successful tactics in the short term.
In addition, the authoritarian approach has been linked to children being more likely to eat when they are not hungry and eating less healthy foods that are likely higher in calories, which increase the risk of overweight and obesity and/or conditions of disordered eating.
On the other hand, an indulgent approach, where a child is allowed to eat whatever they want whenever they want, does not provide enough boundaries for children to develop healthy eating habits.
“Children’s eating behaviours are influenced by a lot of people in their lives, so ideally, we want the whole family to demonstrate healthy eating habits,” said Wood.