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Engaging children's tastes in eating decisions leads to healthier habits

Engaging children's tastes in eating decisions leads to healthier habits
Experts say that engaging children's hunger, pairing new foods with ones they already like and displaying health eating habits can help children develop better habits as well. Photo by kaboompics/Pixabay

May 11 (UPI) -- Enabling children to make decisions about food -- and educating them about healthy choices through example -- can lead to improved nutrition and healthier lifelong eating habits, experts said Monday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

A more "authoritarian" approach to dietary decision has been repeatedly linked to children eating when not hungry, and eating less healthy foods -- including sneaking food from caregivers -- which increases risk for obesity and eating disorders, authors of the scientific statement wrote.

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They said, however, that an entirely "indulgent" or "laissez-faire" approach -- in which children are allowed to eat whatever they want whenever they want -- does not provide enough boundaries for development of healthy eating habits. The method also increases the risk for obesity.

"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," Dr. Alexis C. Wood, the writing group chair for the scientific statement, said in a press release.

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"Children's eating behaviors are influenced by a lot of people in their lives, so ideally, we want the whole family to demonstrate healthy eating habits," said Wood, who also is an assistant professor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Agriculture Research Services Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

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As many as 14 million children and adolescents across the country are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many children are influenced by the emotional atmosphere surrounding eating, including the wishes and demands of parents and caregivers. If children feel pressured to diet, or eat certain foods, it may be harder for them to listen to internal cues that tell them when they are full, the authors noted.

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A study published in October in the Journal of Adolescent Health, for example, found that girls who had been pressured to diet by parents had a 49 percent higher risk for being an obese young adult compared to girls who hadn't gotten that parental pressure.

Allowing children to decide what and how much to eat among healthy food options encourages them to develop and eventually take ownership of dietary decisions. That also might help develop eating patterns linked to a healthy weight for a lifetime, reducing risk for heart disease and diabetes as they age, the author said.

A 2017 review of existing research, published in the journal Obesity Reviews, found that exposing young children to healthy foods when they're young helps instill positive life-long eating habits.

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To encourage healthy eating, parents and caregivers should schedule meals at consistent times, serve healthy or new foods alongside foods children already enjoy and consume those new and healthy foods themselves, the statement said.

In addition, caregivers should pay attention to verbal or non-verbal hunger and fullness cues and avoid pressuring children to eat more than they want to.

Some parents and caregivers might find it challenging to allow children to make their own food decisions, especially if they become reluctant to try new foods or become picky eaters, Wood said. These behaviors are common and considered normal among children between 1 and 5 years old, as they are still learning about the tastes and textures of solid foods.

"It is very clear that each child is an individual and differs in their tendency to make healthy decisions about food as they grow," Wood said.

"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 childhood, and not place undue attention on the child's individual decisions," he added.

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