Unhealthy food preferences

boy-messy-faceIn our modern society, where unhealthy foods and drinks are readily available, children are at a greater risk than ever before of developing problems with overweight and obesity. Changes in food availability, food production, and lifestyle have all contributed to the increasing numbers of adults and children who have developed health problems related to an unhealthy diet.

Much attention has been paid to encouraging healthy eating within the home and school in order to try and help to lay the foundations for future good health, and avoid children developing weight problems and the associated medical complaints.

Among the recommendations for a healthy diet is the Government's main message that all children and adults should eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day. However, recent research has found that an alarmingly small number of children actually manage to achieve this.

Right from birth, children show a tendency to prefer sweet tastes. Indeed, breast milk is sweet. Children also have a tendency from birth to dislike bitter tastes. Since many vegetables taste bitter, this presents a barrier to them being easily accepted.

The reason for the dislike of bitter tastes appears to be related to our deep-rooted tendency to be wary of foods that are not fresh. Humans appear to have an innate sense that sweet tastes indicate freshness and sour or bitter tastes indicate that a food is going bad. As such, rejection of bitter tasting vegetables is a normal developmental response.

While it is normal for a child to reject vegetables, this does not mean that this rejection should be accepted or ignored. Rather, it is important to support children in the learning process that is required to make these foods part of their diet. This has become much harder to achieve in recent years with the increases in attractive, yet unhealthy alternatives; many of which are targeted directly at children. This is worrying since an unhealthy diet in childhood is associated with a number of serious health problems including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and cancer. While some children who consume a very poor diet may remain a healthy weight, or even be underweight, a large proportion of children will be overweight or obese. Carrying too much or too little weight is associated with a number of significant negative social, psychological, and physiological effects.

A healthy diet in childhood provides the foundation for good health in later life. We should all aim to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The best way to help to shape children's flavour preferences and aid in establishing a healthy diet is to expose them to a wide variety of healthy foods from an early age, and remove unhealthy foods and drinks from their environment. This might require a change in your usual routine, what you buy, and what foods you cook or eat yourself, but the benefits to your child's health will be well worth it. 

Action Points

It is never too late to make changes to increase the quality of your family's diet, nor is it ever too early to educate your child on healthy eating.

  1. Healthy food is normal food - Healthy eating should be the norm. If your child is not familiar with healthy foods, then they are less likely to eat them. Make sure that you expose your child to healthy foods, not just at mealtimes but in a variety of different ways. See the Food Refusal pitfall section for more information.
  2. Make yours a healthy home - Remove unhealthy foods and drinks from your home. If they are not there, they cannot be eaten. Remember that water is a perfect thirst quencher. See the Restriction pitfall section for more on how to best limit children's intake of unhealthy foods and drinks.
  3. Educate - Help children to understand the importance of what they put into their bodies and what special properties fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grains have. There are now many games, available on games consoles, or downloaded from the internet onto PC or mobile phone, that are designed specifically for this purpose and that can help children to understand healthy eating in a way that they will find fun to engage with.
  4. Cultivate - Teach children about healthy eating and natural foods by growing things together. Children will enjoy tending to plants and watching them grow and may be more likely to eat foods that they have grown themselves.
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