The latest scientific statement says that how children are fed may be just as significant as what they are fed. The statement is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, “Caregiver Influences on Eating Behaviors in Young Children.”
The American Heart Association focused on giving evidence-based strategies for guardians and caregivers to make a healthy food environment for children that underpins the maintenance of a healthy weight in childhood with the development of positive eating patterns, thereby reducing the risks of obesity, overweight and cardiovascular illness later in life.
Although many children are born with an innate capacity to stop eating when they are full, they are additionally affected by the emotional atmosphere, including guardian wishes and requests during mealtimes. If children feel constrained to eat in response to guardian wants, it might be harder for them to listen to the individual internal cues that tell them when they are full.
According to the authors, allowing children to choose what they want and especially how much they want to eat within an environment composed of healthy eating options encourages them to develop and eventually make their own decisions about food. It may help children in developing healthy eating behaviours linked to a healthy weight for the whole life.
The writing group chair for the scientific statement and assistant professor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the department of paediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Alexis C. Wood, PhD said that guardians and caregivers should consider creating a positive eating environment centred on healthy eating patterns, rather than just focusing on rigid rules about what and how much children should eat.
Wood said that eating behaviours of children are influenced by the people in their lives; so ideally, the whole family should adopt healthy eating behaviours. The statement suggests that guardians and caregivers should be positive role models by creating healthy food environment that shows and supports healthy eating choices, rather than a rigid environment that only focused on controlling the choices of children or highlighting weight.
Parents should encourage them to eat healthy foods by:
- providing consistent timing for meals
- allowing them to select what foods they want to eat
- serving new healthy foods alongside foods they like
- paying attention to the verbal or non-verbal fullness and hunger cues by children
- avoid pressuring them to eat more than they want
It is important to know that not all strategies are effective for all children. Parents and caregivers should not blame or feel undue stress for eating behaviours of their child. It is very obvious that each child is an individual and differs in their ability to make healthy choices about food with their growth.
This is why 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 regularly eating healthy foods while eating with the child and demonstrating enjoyment of the food
Guardians can be a powerful force in developing healthy eating behaviours of their children and yet their role is limited by other factors. The authors are encouraging policies that address hurdles in implementing the recommendations of the statement within the socioeconomic context that include social health determinants like food insecurity, socio-economic status and others.
The efforts that encourage parents to give a responsive, healthy environment could be important for reducing obesity and cardiovascular risk across the lifetime. Authors note that they will be most effective as the component of the multi-component prevention strategy.