How children are fed while growing up may be just as important as what they are fed, according to a statement from the American Heart Association (AHA).

The statement is one of the first from the AHA to focus on providing evidence-based strategies for parents and caregivers to create a healthy food environment for young children. These strategies support the development of positive eating behaviors and the maintenance of a healthy weight in childhood, thereby reducing the risks of overweight, obesity, and cardiovascular disease later in life, according to an AHA press release.

Many children are influenced by the overall emotional atmosphere of eating, although some children are born with an innate ability to stop eating when they are full. If the child feels under pressure to eat in response to caregiver wants, it may be harder for them to listen to their individual internal cues that tell them when they are full, according to the press release.

The statement authors expressed that allowing children to choose what and how much they eat within an environment composed of healthy options encourages them to develop and, eventually, take ownership of their decisions about food. This could help them develop eating patterns linked to a healthy weight for a lifetime.

“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,” said Alexis C. Wood, PhD, the writing group chair for the scientific statement, in the press release.

The statement further explains that parents and caregivers should be positive role models by creating an environment that demonstrates and supports healthy food choices, rather than an environment focused on controlling children’s choices or highlighting body weight.

Encouraging children to eat healthier can be done by parents and caregivers in the following ways:
  • providing consistent timing for meals
  • allowing children to select which foods they want to eat from a selection of healthy choices
  • serving healthy or new foods alongside foods children already enjoy
  • regularly eating new, healthy foods while eating with the child and demonstrating enjoyment of the food
  • paying attention to a child’s verbal or non-verbal hunger and fullness cues
  • avoiding pressuring children to eat more than they wish

The statement authors noted that some parents or caregivers may find it challenging to allow children to make their own food decisions, especially if the children become reluctant to try new foods or become picky eaters. Although implementing rules around eating habits and using rewards or punishment tactics seems successful, the research around the topic does not support this approach.

Further, the authoritarian approach has been linked to children being more likely to eat when they are not hungry and eating less healthy foods that are likely higher in calories, which increases the risk of overweight and obesity or conditions of disordered eating, according to the press release.

Conversely, when a child is allowed to eat whatever they want at any time of the day, there are not enough boundaries provided for children to develop healthy eating habits. The research from the statement suggests that some strategies can increase a child’s dietary variety during the early years if they are “picky” or “fussy” about foods. When a parent or caregiver models eating healthy foods, this can assist children in being more open to a wider variety of food options, according to the AHA.

Wood mentioned that all parents and caregivers should not feel undue stress or blame for children’s eating behaviors.

“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 in the press release. “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.”

REFERENCE
Healthy eating behaviors in childhood may reduce the risk of adult obesity and heart disease. American Heart Association. https://newsroom.heart.org/news/healthy-eating-behaviors-in-childhood-may-reduce-the-risk-of-adult-obesity-and-heart-disease. Published May 11, 2020. Accessed May 13, 2020.