Can you change eating habits?

In reducing obesity in children, it is becoming increasingly clear that bad eating habits must be replaced by good ones. But which factors play a role in this and can you influence these factors in such a way that eating habits will improve?

The quality of children’s diets

The diet of many children does not meet the guidelines. In America, children get about 35 percent of calories from added sugars and solid fats, while the recommended percentage is much lower (between 5 to 15 percent). In all countries of the European Union, children eat too much fat and not enough foods containing starchy carbohydrates. In 2005 and 2006, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, RIVM, conducted research into the dietary patterns of toddlers and preschoolers in the Netherlands. This shows that young children do not eat enough vegetables, fruit and fish and not enough foods with fiber. Other RIVM surveys show a downward trend in the average consumption of vegetables and fresh fruit among all children from 1987 to 2003. Although people are eating less and less saturated fat, Dutch children from the age of 4 still consume too much of this fat.

Eating habits change

Because many children in Western countries do not receive proper nutrition, they are at higher risk of all kinds of health problems. To prevent this, children will have to eat differently. They will have to eat healthier. The most important question that arises is: is that possible? Is it possible to change a child’s eating habits? Many parents have found that it is sometimes very difficult to get their child to eat healthy. They may have desperately tried to get their child to taste something new or have experienced great resistance to eating a certain vegetable. It is not obvious for these parents to answer this question with a resounding yes. Yet it is possible to change a child’s eating habits. This is possible if it is clear how these arise and which factors influence them.

How are eating habits formed?

Since 2002, research into the consumption of fruit and vegetables has been conducted on behalf of the European Union: the Pro Children Project (after 2008: Pro Greens Project). In this context, a collaboration of scientists from the United States and several European countries has conducted research into the factors that influence the consumption of fruit and vegetables. They studied 98 studies from mainly Europe (32%) and the United States (49%) that were published between 1958 and 2006 and concerned children aged 6 to 19 years. They discovered that:

  • what the child knows about a particular food influences consumption: for example, if children know more about good nutrition, they eat more of it.
  • the attitude that a child adopts with regard to a particular food or group of foods has an influence: for example, a rejecting attitude leads to lower consumption and an accepting attitude to eating more of that food.
  • Taste preference appears to have the most influence on the consumption of fruit and vegetables: the more children liked a certain type of fruit or vegetable, the more of it was eaten.
  • American research confirms the important influence of taste preferences in teenagers. EAT (Eating Among Teens) is a long-term research project at the University of Minnesota that started in 1998 and has produced more than 70 publications. One of the main goals is to research the factors that influence the eating habits of teenagers. In 2003, the results of research led by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor of public health, into the factors influencing the consumption of fruit and vegetables by secondary school-aged children were published within the framework of this project. Nearly 4,000 young people from 31 different schools took part in an extensive written survey and more than 900 parents were interviewed by telephone by trained project staff. Questions were asked about a variety of topics that could be related to eating fruit and vegetables, such as: which types are preferred, whether healthy food choices are perceived as important, what and how much is eaten and what eating patterns exist within the family. to exist. Analysis of this data showed that taste preference is particularly important in the development of eating habits. Furthermore, this research shows that
  • the availability of vegetables and fruit is also related to their consumption: for example, if children often or always had different types of fruit and vegetables available to them at home or at school, more of them were eaten.

Genetic influences

Several studies on the preferences of adult twin pairs show that genetic influence increases after childhood. For example, a recent Finnish study comparing 2009 young adult twins discovered that the choice of specific foods and the frequency with which they were consumed could largely be explained by hereditary influences. The preferences of identical twins were more similar than those of non-identical twins. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that there was no demonstrable influence of food preferences from the family of origin. The genetic influence on preferences apparently increases as a person ages. The effect of other influences from the environment is therefore greater in children. This is beneficial because many environmental factors of children can be influenced, but biological factors cannot. Changing these environmental factors can have a beneficial effect on long-term taste preference and therefore also on eating habits.

The influence of parents

A good example is followed by a bad example

In 2007, a group of Dutch scientists from the Erasmus University Medical Center analyzed 58 mainly American (50%) and European (40%) studies on factors in the child’s environment that influence eating behavior. This analysis shows that several studies conclude that there is a link between what parents eat and what their children eat. If parents eat more vegetables or fruit, their children will also eat more. However, this connection also exists between the amount of snacks and fat that parents and children eat. In older children (13-18 years) there is a clear connection not only between what they eat and their parents, but also with what other family members eat. For example, if the brothers or sisters eat more calories per day, then the teenagers in that family do the same. The cause of the connection is not entirely clear. Some scientists explain this connection with the theory that children can learn behavior through what they see: social learning. Children can learn by observing the behavior of other people. Not only what others do is observed, but also the consequences of the behavior. Whether or not a child adopts a certain behavior depends mainly on the consequences as perceived by that child. The chance that behavior will be adopted is greater if the example is more important in the child’s eyes. According to this theory, it is therefore obvious that the eating behavior of parents is also adopted by the children in that family.

The influence of parents on the amount of food

Other parental behavior also influences their child’s eating. For example, they can limit the amount of unhealthy foods their children can eat. Although it seems logical that restriction leads to healthier eating, research suggests the opposite. The American National Institute of Health has conducted research into the connection between the behavior of mothers and the eating behavior of their five-year-old daughters. The daughters of mothers who tried to limit the amount of high-fat foods for their child as much as possible were found to consume more fat than the daughters whose mothers did not. Other American research into the diets of more than 300 white and Mexican young children also showed that the children of parents who tried to limit the amount of fatty foods consumed more fat. Furthermore, the analysis by the Erasmus University Medical Center shows that the availability of foodstuffs in the family and their accessibility for the child have an influence: the more often they are present and the less effort children can obtain them with, the more more they will eat of it. The latter especially applies to vegetables and fruit.

Change, but how?

An important factor in changing a child’s eating habits is the influence of the parents:

  • Set a good example: Pursue healthy eating behavior yourself.
  • As a parent, you can determine (especially with young children) which foods you do or do not make available to your child and in what quantities. Be careful that you are not guilty of excessive restriction as explained under the previous heading. It is mainly about having sufficient healthy food available, preferably ready-made. Consider low-sugar drinks (water in the refrigerator, possibly diluted with a little lemonade or lemon juice), cleaned fruit or bite-sized vegetables.
  • Give your child information about healthy food that is important to you and why.
  • Enable your child to gain experiences with healthy foods. Let your child help peel, peel and prepare healthy food. Help your child discover healthy foods that are new to them by letting them try them in a relaxed atmosphere. Take into account the fact that a child sometimes only starts to like something after having tasted it 10 to 15 times.
  • Realize that most changes will lead to changes in behavior within the entire family. You as a parent play a crucial role in this. As a parent, it is possible to exert a positive influence on many factors during childhood that are important to achieve a healthy or healthier diet for your child.

read more

  • History of ideal weight and BMI
  • How does taste preference arise in children?
  • Governments, obesity and children
  • Parents, children and obesity