In a new statement, researchers say that how children are fed may be just as important as what they are fed.
The statement is the first from the Association focused on providing evidence-based strategies for parents and caregivers to create a healthy food environment for young children.
It supports the development of positive eating behaviors and the maintenance of a healthy weight in childhood, thereby reducing the risks of overweight, obesity, and cardiovascular disease later in life.
Although many children are born with an innate ability to stop eating when they are full, they are also influenced by the overall emotional atmosphere, including caregiver wishes and demands during mealtimes.
If children feel under pressure to eat in response to the caregiver wants, it may be harder for them to listen to the individual internal cues that tell them when they are full.
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.
The team says parents and caregivers should consider building a positive food environment centered on healthy eating habits, rather than focusing on rigid rules about what and how a child should eat.
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 team 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 behaviors 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.
However, research does not support this approach; rather, it may have long-term, negative consequences.
An authoritarian eating environment does not allow a child to develop positive decision-making skills and can reduce their sense of control, which are important developmental processes for children.
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 increases 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.
Research has also linked this “laissez-faire” approach to a greater risk of children becoming overweight or having obesity.
The team says parents and caregivers should not feel undue stress or blame for children’s eating behaviors.
It is important to focus on creating an environment that encourages decision-making skills and provides exposure to a variety of healthy, nutritious foods throughout childhood, and not place undue attention on the child’s individual decisions.
The lead author of the study is Alexis C. Wood, Ph.D., the writing group chair for the scientific statement.
The study is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
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