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Getting children to eat healthy can be challenging

Hard to Process: Childhood Obesity Rates and Less Whole Foods

Simple Things You Can Do to Get Your Kids to Eat Better

Did you know that the childhood obesity rate has been steadily rising in the past two decades? This kind of statistic begs the question, “What in the world are our children eating? What has changed?” There are several factors that play a role in the health of a child, such as sleep, exercise, etc. But several scientists, noticing the trend, decided to study the common diet of the American child. They wanted to answer the question, “How many whole foods are children eating vs. ultra-processed?”

Their study analyzed the diets of 33,795 youths aged 2-19 years, about half and half girls and boys, from 1998-2018. In that time period, investigators recorded that the majority of daily calories in the American child diet came from ultra-processed foods. For the study, investigators defined “ultra-processed foods” as food including additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, sensory enhancers, colorants, flavors, and processing aids, but little or no whole food. These foods are often ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals. Interestingly enough, there was a decreasing trend in children drinking sugar-sweetened drinks from 1998-2018, but an uptick in pre-made meals and sugary baked products and snacks. Another interesting finding was Mexican-American children persistently eat less ultra-processed foods, a habit that researchers suggest may reflect a stronger culture of family meals at home.

For caregivers, reading results like this can feel frustrating and guilt-producing. It takes time to read labels. It takes time to cook whole foods, and typically, people acting as caregivers for children have very little time even for themselves. Also, Americans often live as if time is a commodity. Less time spent in the kitchen can mean more time on work, in after-school activities, or with family. But this cultural thought-process might be to the detriment of our diets. Research also shows that children’s eating habits are highly influenced by their caregivers. We are the food providers, models, and regulators for their diets, and that can be a tough job. So, how do we get our children to eat more whole foods?

Take Small Steps
  1. Take small steps: You don’t have to overhaul your child’s diet completely. This would likely be overwhelming for both you and the child. Instead, make one or two small changes at first. Then, when new habits take hold, try something else new. Maybe even start by adding whole foods rather than only subtracting ultra-processed foods.
  2. 100% whole grain choice: Whenever you can, choose 100% whole grain at the store. Whether it’s a noodle or a bread or even flour to bake with, choosing a less processed grain is an easy swap.
  3. Choose no-prep whole foods: Snacks, particularly on the go, can feel like one of the toughest areas to eat healthy. But rather than fruit-by-the-foot, pick no-prep fruits and veggies like berries or snap peas. Don’t forget nuts and seeds are excellent whole foods full of nutrients. Even popcorn can be a healthy choice.
  4. Set a dinner goal: Families who make eating at home together a priority often eat more whole foods. So, why not try setting a family goal? Could you cook two meals a week together at home? Make it fun! Incorporate children into cooking by letting them peel or chop foods.

When so many “fast” options exist, it can feel tempting to pick the easiest foods rather than the whole foods. But as consumption of ultra-processed food rises with childhood obesity, it may be time to rethink family daily diets.


Influences on the Development of Children’s Eating Behaviours: From Infancy to Adolescence

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