Is your lifestyle harming your children?
Despite the fact that we live in media-heavy society with celebrities promoting food in its numerous forms by advertising for major companies and advocating the latest diet fads, close family has the greatest influence on children’s lifestyle. The British Nutrition Foundation conducted an online survey of school children during ‘Healthy Eating Week’ to find that family members are the strongest influence on a child’s eating habits and physical activity level.
31% of the children who took part in the survey stated that family influenced their eating habits with only 11% identified celebrities as their main authority. Although this increased dramatically from 6% of all 7 – 10 year olds saying they looked to celebrity role models up to 16% of 14 – 16 year olds, this is significantly lower than parental influence.
The impact of sports people is more important to children for promoting activity with 26% identifying them as their main inspiration compared with 23% for family members. Again, the influence of a sportsperson role model increased as the children became older and parental influence decreased at the same time (from 28% to 17%).
This information would suggest that if obesity runs in families it not only has a genetic component but that there is also a social and cultural element. This includes eating and activity habits. Previous studies have shown that eating habits that are developed at a pre-school level can influence eating behaviours for the rest of one’s life. It is understandable that parents have the most influence before you reach school age as they are in control of your food but research done in 2012 showed that even when children were able to make their own food choices (such as at school) their food preferences were already determined.
As a race we have an evolutionary preference for sweet tasting foods as babies. This was so that we preferred to eat food that was high in calories (for survival) and rejected bitter tasting foods (to avoid poisoning). However, this preference only lasts a short time (as little as 14 days according to some researchers) and should not be a reason not to try foods that might have a less sweet taste.
Certainly this study also suggested that healthy eating role models had the strongest influence on children but behaviours such as rewarding healthy eating or restricting certain foods proved to be counterproductive in the long run. A part of the problem can be that so many meals are eaten away from the home these days that the opportunities are fewer for positive modelling and greater for making unhealthier food choices. Of course so many of us have less time (and patience) to sit with a child and encourage them to eat things they really don’t fancy so there are a few things that can be done to help the process along:
- Have specific meal times and stick to them as much as possible.
- Sit down and eat a meal alongside your child with the same foods on both of your plates (obviously not the same portions).
- Make the plate look attractive: arranging food to make pictures or patterns are more appealing to children.
- Make the plate as colourful as possible as this ensures a range of nutrients as well as making it look attractive.
- Make sure the food proportions are the same as yours with vegetables taking around half of the meal with carbs and proteins taking a quarter each.
- Only offer 1 or 2 new foods at a time; more than this will be overwhelming and your child will probably refuse.
- Offer a new food at least 5 times before giving up but try different ways of cooking and presenting the food to make it more appealing.
- Allow your child to decide when they are hungry and full; don’t insist on a cleared plate every time
- Encourage but don’t pressurise and praise when they try something new.
- Don’t ban foods; it is better to teach your child that all foods can be part of a balanced diet if eaten in the right amounts.
Of course a parent’s obsession with weight loss, dieting and exercise will also have a massive impact on the way your child sees him/herself. According to a 2015 report more than ½ of all six and seven year-old girls and 1/3 of boys said that their ideal weight was less than their actual weight and children who believed that their mother wasn’t happy with her body were more likely to suffer from negative body image. Just the passing comment about ‘a minute on the lips a lifetime on the hips’ can cause your child to have an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise even if it is generally said as a joke. Children as young as five were found to be dissatisfied with their bodies, engaged in negative talk about themselves and wanted to be thinner. Since all the research has shown that the perceived pressure to have the ‘perfect’ body increases as children become teenagers, it doesn’t bode well for the future of our children.
As with all things in life it is important that our children see a balanced view so having their greatest influences complaining that they are too fat or need to burn off all those calories they’ve just eaten will do as much harm as seeing couch potatoes eating junk food. If you want to make changes to your diet or activity levels do it for the right reasons; to be healthier. Once you have a healthy lifestyle and (perhaps more importantly) a healthy body image you can encourage your child to look at food and activity in a healthy way. Remember, your body is amazing and you need to make sure that your child thinks the same about his/her body too!
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