QUESTION: “Hello Dr. Neal! Thank you for hosting such an informative and inspirational podcast. I listen daily and use your information to guide my own personal health and well-being. My question actually has more to do with my children. Although they eat healthy dinners and healthy food that I cook for them each evening, the rest of the day it is up to them to decide what they want to eat. Unfortunately, they eat a lot of ultra-processed foods, which of course I admittedly buy for them.
Do you have any tips on how I can help transition them to healthier but easy food options? And also, what does the research tell us about this type of diet at a young age and whether it will have any impact on their health when they become adults? All of the children are active in sports and outdoor play and they have normal BMIs. Thank you so much for your time!”
DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for taking the time to send me your question. And, thank you so much for your kind words and for being a regular listener. I’m thrilled that you find the show so helpful.
I appreciate that you want to help your kiddos eat more nutritious foods more often. Occasionally consuming highly processed foods isn’t a problem but if children and adolescents can consume mostly nutritious, whole foods about 80% of the time, that would be ideal.
Does Childhood Eating Impact How Kids Eat as Adults?
Our listener asked about the research – specifically, what does the research say about children’s diet quality and health later in life?
Well, it turns out that eating nutritious foods when we’re young can have an effect on our health as adults. Multiple studies have found connections between consuming more highly processed foods during childhood and development of overweight, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease later in life. This is because these foods have lots of calories, are easily absorbed (which means the body converts them to sugar pretty easily), don’t have a lot of nutrients, are high in sodium, and high in unhealthy fats.
If these types of foods are consumed regularly, they can increase blood sugar levels, which in turn lead to higher levels of fat in the blood, which might then increase that amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream which can then raise blood pressure. So it becomes this kind of chain reaction.
In fact, some practicing physicians have found plaque building up inside the arteries of children as young as 8 years of age. These plaques are pockets of cholesterol that block the flow of blood to organs like the brain and heart. If we consume more whole foods when we’re younger, we can reduce the chances of these things happening.
Physical activity definitely helps prevent these diseases as well, so it’s great that your kids are regularly active. Most health agencies agree that children and adolescents should aim to get at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise every day.
So that’s the why – why eating more nutritious foods and staying physically active when we’re young can be helpful for lowering the risk for future disease.
How Do I Get My Child to Eat More Healthy Food Like Fruits and Vegetables?
Now we have to think about how we get our kids to actually do these things. Well, we’re in luck, because researchers have been trying to answer this question for years. Most health professionals agree that younger folks need to be consuming more fruits and vegetables. Vegetables are often the toughest sell.
But luckily, just this past week in fact, an article came across my email inbox that discusses how we can encourage our kids to eat more vegetables. Researchers conducted something called a meta-analysis – that’s where the scientists collected a bunch of already published studies to see whether these studies had the same results. These meta-analyses are considered the highest quality research, so I often like to use them when I’m trying to find whether there’s truth to something.
Get Kids Familiar with Vegetable Flavors
Well, these results found getting children familiar with vegetables, particularly vegetable flavors is one of the best ways to get them to eat more. Believe it or not, that can begin during pregnancy and continue through infancy. Researchers have found that when pregnant or lactating mothers consume more vegetables, their babies get exposed to those vegetable flavors which makes them more accepting of those flavors as they get older.
Encourage Kids to Eat Their Veggies First
Since your kiddos are already older, we need some other ways to encourage these behaviors. So, another way is to encourage children to consume their veggies first before the other foods. According to a 2010 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “The increased consumption of vegetables at the start of a meal could affect the type or amount of food eaten during the rest of the meal.”
Be A Good Role Model with Healthy Food Options
We also know that, with older children, social influences (like their friends and those they admire) as well as the media play a role in their selection of certain foods.
While it may seem like parents aren’t the most influential on older children’s habits, they can still have a powerful influence. When your children see you eating nutritious foods, they are more likely to do so as well. Dining together for family meals is one of the best times to do this.
Get Your Kids Involved in Meal Planning
One more tip is to encourage each of the kiddos to help design one of the family dinners each week. By allowing the children to decide what the family eats, they feel as though they have a say, too. Parents of course need to be involved in the planning and have final say, but many are surprised to see that their children often plan fairly balanced meals on their own. Then, involve the children in the actual food preparation and cooking process. They love to see the rest of the family enjoying their creations.