Hearing the words ‘food is medicine’ may sound farfetched to some, but in my mind, it is very much the truth.
See, the benefits of a healthy diet are varied and pronounced. Eating well can significantly lower your risk of developing several diseases, it can improve your mood and energy, and even impact your mental health in a positive manner.
Which actually sounds a whole lot like medicine to me…
But one of the biggest challenges we face as parents is how to establish healthy eating habits in children.
The importance of forming good eating habits in childhood
Childhood is a time of growth, development, and enjoyment.
However, it is also arguably the most important time in a human’s entire life. You see, childhood is where lifelong habits are formed. It is where you develop the foundation for your future in all aspects of life.
With this in mind, forming good eating habits during childhood is integral to developing and maintaining good eating habits as an adult – which offers a number of important benefits.
What are the benefits of eating healthy in childhood?
First and foremost, healthy eating for kids can have some serious benefits in the short term. These include (Nyaradi, 2013; O’neil, 2014; Funtikova, 2015):
- Improved weight management
- Reduced risk of developing childhood obesity
- Better mental health
- Enhanced cognitive development and brain function
- Better cardiovascular and metabolic health
Now, a key thing to remember here is that as your childhood eating patterns will also influence adult patterns, they can also impact your health as an adult (Ambrosini, 2014; Wang, 2018).
As a result, if you eat well during childhood, you are likely to experience the following health benefits as an adult:
- Reduced risk of obesity
- Lower risk of developing heart disease
- Less risk of developing diabetes
- A decline in the risk of developing depression and anxiety
To put it simply, eating well during childhood sets the foundations for maintaining health across the lifespan.
How to help your child learn healthy eating habits
I know many kids who are picky eaters.
It is not uncommon for them to completely refuse to eat what is put in front of them, and they rarely stray from their very few favorite dishes – and just to be clear, when I say ‘favorite’, I simply mean the food that they actually eat…
As a result, these children tend to eat a diet that many of us would consider unhealthy. Full to the brim with processed carbohydrates and unhealthy fats, and very light on fruits, vegetables, seafood, and lean cuts of meat.
It is a recipe for the development of unhealthy eating habits.
But it certainly doesn’t have to be this way.
See, I certainly agree that most children like food that is familiar. With this in mind, they basically like what they know, and then eat what they like.
It’s a very simple process.
Consequently, one of the best ways to kickstart the development of healthy eating patterns is to expose your child to a broad range of healthy foods from a very young age.
By giving your child repeated opportunities to taste unfamiliar foods, you will increase the spectrum of food they actually like, and therefore increase both their tolerance and consumption of those foods (Cooke, 2007).
This is arguably one of the most well-regarded ways to encourage healthy eating – however, it is not the only way….
The importance of parents as good role models
What about the parent’s role in healthy eating?
There is also a growing body of research demonstrating that if you (as a parent) eat a healthy diet, then your children are going to be much more likely to do the same (Davison, 2017).
While this may seem obvious at first glance, that certainly does not make it any less important. If you eat a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, then these foods are going to be considered normal by your children. Conversely, if you rarely eat unhealthy snacks, then this food is going to appear abnormal in comparison.
As a result, you can simply help your child develop good eating habits by role modeling those eating habits and normalizing the consumption of healthy foods.
Do as I do is just as important as do as I say – sometimes even more important.
Related Article: Epigenetic Inheritance: Your Children Could Inherit Your HIIT
Teaching your child that food is medicine
Taking all of the above into consideration, there are some obvious benefits that come with educating your children around the health benefits of food and encouraging them to treat food as medicine (tasty medicine, of course).
There is some very recent evidence showing that parents who discuss and feed their children with the intent to educate them about its associated benefits find it easier to teach their children healthy eating habits (Webster, 2016).
This reinforces the suggestion that the specific type of food they eat is done so with a purpose, and it will offer them benefits across the lifespan. This also appears to make it easier for the parents to provide the diet, as they receive less resistance from their children – which is a win-win if I have ever seen one!
Should food ever be used as a punishment or a reward?
Something that many parents try and do is treat food as a reward, or in some circumstances, as a punishment.
For example, they may say that if their child is well behaved, they can have a bowl of their favorite ice cream. Alternatively, they may threaten their child with a healthy dinner and no desert in response to poor behavior.
But here’s the thing – both approaches can have some rather negative consequences (Birch, 2007; Vandeweghe, 2016).
Repeatedly presenting a specific food as a reward can increase your child’s preference for that kind of food. As the food is a powerful reinforcement, giving it as a reward can result in the increased desire for that food, while decreasing the desire for any healthier alternatives (especially when the reward is used as a result of eating healthier foods first).
Similarly, using a specific food as punishment creates negative associations with that food, which can lead to disgust and avoidance. This can lead to some seriously negative eating patterns right across the lifespan.
So, make the effort to educate your kids on the importance of good quality foods, and never use it as a punishment or as a reward.
What are the most important healthy foods for children?
After reading all this information, you might be wondering about healthy foods for kids. I mean, what should children be getting in their diet?
Well, fortunately for all of us, it’s actually pretty straightforward – and more importantly, it isn’t all that different from what we as adults should be getting either.
With this in mind, your child’s diet should be built around:
- Whole grains
- Lean cuts of meat
- Dairy products
Additionally, you should try and limit their consumption of the following foods as much as possible:
- Junk foods
- Fatty cuts of meat
- Sugary beverages
If you can manage these two things, then you are well on your way to making sure your kids’ diet is as healthy as possible.
Take Home Message
When it comes to improving health across the lifespan, actively pursuing a healthy diet is integral. In fact, given the huge impact that a good diet can have on every aspect of your health really does reinforce the fact that food is medicine.
It is for this reason that developing healthy eating behaviors in your children from a young age is so damn important – to make sure you follow the tips in this article and reap the rewards!
Nyaradi, Anett, et al. “The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 7 (2013): 97.
O’neil, Adrienne, et al. “Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review.” American journal of public health 104.10 (2014): e31-e42.
Funtikova, Anna N., et al. “Impact of diet on cardiometabolic health in children and adolescents.” Nutrition journal 14.1 (2015): 118.
Ambrosini, Gina L. “Childhood dietary patterns and later obesity: a review of the evidence.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 73.1 (2014): 137-146.
Wang, Qing, et al. “The Effect of Childhood Health Status on Adult Health in China.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15.2 (2018): 212.
Cooke, Lucy. “The importance of exposure for healthy eating in childhood: a review.” Journal of human nutrition and dietetics 20.4 (2007): 294-301.
Davison, Brittany, et al. “The association between parent diet quality and child dietary patterns in nine-to eleven-year-old children from Dunedin, New Zealand.” Nutrients 9.5 (2017): 483.
Webster, Michelle, and Jonathan Gabe. “Diet and identity: being a good parent in the face of contradictions presented by the ketogenic diet.” Sociology of health & illness 38.1 (2016): 123-136.
Birch, Leanne, et al. “Influences on the Development of Children’s Eating Behaviours: From Infancy to Adolescence.” Can J Diet Pract Res 68.1 (2007): s1-s56.
Vandeweghe, Laura, et al. “Food approach and food Avoidance in young children: Relation with reward sensitivity and punishment sensitivity.” Frontiers in psychology 7 (2016): 928.