Child Nutrition and the Parent Child Relationship
I wrote earlier about how our genes control a lot about how we eat our food. However, they can’t possibly describe everything about our eating behaviors. If they did, you wouldn’t see such drastic variations in BMI’s and health outcomes across different cultures.
One of the more fertile environments that affects the foods we like to eat is the parent-child relationship. Young kids pick up most of their assumptions about food from their parents early on in life, and they can stick for a long time.
There are a few papers in the British Journal of Nutrition that shed a lot of light on the issue.
Parental Best Practices
The brief answer is that you can make your kids eat healthy by being a good role-model yourself, but you can’t do it by mindlessly pushing healthy food on them. It’ll just train them to sharpen their sense of likes/dislikes and create all sorts of food taboos that are hard to undo.
One recently published study measured how parenting styles affect fruit and vegetable intakes in their children. It measured two different parenting dimensions: how strict the parent was, and how involved the parent was.
Differences in intake among parenting styles were significant for fruit, vegetables and total fruit and vegetables. When partial correlations were calculated between the two dimensions, strictness and involvement (controlled one for the other), and intakes, only involvement was positively associated with fruit, vegetables and total fruit and vegetable intake.
Here are the take home points:
- Parents that were more involved with their children’s eating increased healthy dietary habits a lot more than parents that were not involved.
- However, parents that were explicitly strict about what their children ate had no additional effect.
Bad Habits for Child Nutrition
Another paper written in the same journal about one year ago suggests that being strict is not only ineffective, it’s actually counter-productive.
The study looks at two common practices popular with parents to get their kids to eat healthy:
- Insisting their kids eat healthy foods first and then giving them sweet foods as a reward
- Pushing healthy foods on their kids for the sake of it.
They both suck. They can have a modest short-term effect, but in the long-run they have a negative impact on your child’s food preferences, food perception, and self-regulating behavior:
Initial evidence indicates that imposition of stringent parental controls can enhance preferences for high-fat and energy-dense foods, limit children’s acceptance of a variety of foods and disrupt children’s regulation of energy intake by altering children’s responsiveness to internal cues of hunger and satiety. This can occur when well-intended but concerned parents assume that children need help in determining what, when, and how much to eat and when parents impose child-feeding practices that provide children with few opportunities for self-control
Micro-managing a children’s diet increases their tendency to hate healthy foods and love junk, to feel guilty about eating junk-food, and skewering their internal hunger regulation, which is actually very good to begin with.