Obesity Among Children Linked to How They are Fed—Not Just What They Eat
Intriguing new research from Ohio State University suggests that the way children are fed influences their risk of becoming obese as much as what they are fed. At the risk of putting additional pressure on already-stressed mothers, it should be noted that a mother’s body mass index, her ethnicity, and her personal eating habits may all impact her children’s risk of developing obesity. The news is especially relevant, because childhood obesity—once all-but-unheard-of—is now increasingly common. By 2020, experts estimate that up to 16 million kids will be obese before the age of 5.
While efforts to reverse this troubling trend have focused on healthy eating and physical activity, obesity may be rooted as much in psychology as biology. "The feeding dynamic between caregivers and their toddlers as a factor in childhood obesity is truly underestimated," said Ihuoma Eneli, MD, medical director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "We're finding that if mealtime becomes a battleground or filled with tension, it could establish a relationship with food that leads kids to unhealthy eating behaviors later.”
Essentially, say experts, it’s better to present healthful foods for kids to eat at appropriate times, and then allow them to choose, without making a fuss about kids’ pickiness. Forcing the issue, or enforcing the old “clean your plate” mentality, can backfire. "When parents are excessively restrictive about eating, two things happen. One, kids learn to eat when they are not hungry. Two, the struggle gives food more power than it should really have—and kids are very intuitive about how they can use that as leverage. The long term result could be dysfunctional thinking about the role that food has in a person's life," said Eneli.
Eneli and her team have developed some guidelines for parents of toddlers that may help establish a lifetime of healthy eating habits—and avoid a life hindered by obesity and its attendant health risks.
De-emphasize the importance of dessert. Rather than making dessert a reward for finishing other foods, let it become a small part of the larger meal.
Serve smaller portions of everything. This helps teach kids to recognize when they’re really full. They can ask for seconds if needed. This also gives kids some control; an important aspect of developing good eating habits.
Don’t react negatively if your child expresses distaste for a particular food. If it’s a new fruit or vegetable, try introducing it again later, perhaps dressed up with some butter, salt, or even ranch dressing.
Serve food in the kitchen or dining room only. Eating in front of the TV, or in a playroom, encourages mindless eating behavior. Partaking of meals should be a group activity; a time for the family to gather and share food and time together.
I. U. Eneli, T. L. Tylka, R. P. Watowicz, J. C. Lumeng. Maternal and Child Roles in the Feeding Relationship: What Are Mothers Doing? Clinical Pediatrics, 2014; 54 (2): 179 DOI: 10.1177/0009922814529363