Are Parents Really Making Healthy Food Choices?

Posted 02/24/2016 | By HealthCorps

A recent New York Times column took a critical look at childhood obesity, adult obesity, and how we need to focus on both together, rather than targeting each problem individually. Though inroads are being made with childhood obesity rates, adult obesity rates are continuing to climb. Currently the 38% of the adult population that are obese are at high risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cancer and depression. A good portion of the adults may have prediabetes without even knowing it.

The rates of obesity in kids age six to eleven seems to have plateaued, and in kids age two to five the rates have dipped below the 10% mark. Experts credit grants from the Robert Woods Foundation, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move, among other campaigns that specifically targeted kids’ weight. Healthier school lunches are being served and vending machine offerings are healthier in most public schools across the U.S.

There is, however, mounting concern that focusing on kids and not “the whole” may backfire like it did with smoking. Telling kids or teens “you can’t smoke,” in essence sent the message that “they can’t smoke now, but they can as adults.” In a sense it made smoking a “rite of passage” into adulthood, and “the forbidden fruit” that kids would want the second they were permitted to have it. It became a sort of guilty pleasure, and it took health advocates, cigarette taxes, smoke-free rules in the workplace, restaurants, apartment buildings and other community spaces, and national media campaigns to impact and lower smoking rates among teens and adults in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

We know that if you are a child with obesity, you will likely develop into a teen and then an adult who struggles with obesity. Researchers have observed that in recent decades, most people actually became obese in adulthood. How does that specific phenomenon happen? We know most kids will continue to want the foods initially introduced to them, early in life. If those choices are fast food, junk food, highly processed food and sugary drinks, then the groundwork has been set for future food preferences. Individuals, who enter adulthood at a normal weight and then become obese, are likely overwhelmed by the accessibility of sugary, fattening, high sodium foods. They face these temptations in the stores they shop at, in the restaurants they frequent, and on TV. There is simply an overwhelming avalanche of unhealthy foods everywhere and it is available twenty four hours a day. We don’t expect kids to be able to resist and as adults, we can’t either. And our waistlines grow and grow. And our kids whom we tell to “eat healthy,” watch our behaviors, and wait till they get older so they can indulge regularly just like mom and dad.

In late November, Maine’s DHHS renewed its push to ban buying soda and junk food with food stamps. A public advocacy group, CSPI, recently took aim at junk foods at the checkout counters in August last year. It will take many changes in our food environment to ease the daily temptations we face as kids and as adults. But much of the groundwork has to start in the home. If you are gaining weight, while mandating that your kids move more and eat less, it’s hypocritical and it’s confusing. In fact, it’s the ultimate mixed message.

Healthy food rules, portion control, consideration of treats, should be family food principles. Food is a family affair and so is weight. Parents need to eat healthy and set that example for their kids.

You might want to take a lesson from the homes of professional chefs. Their kids are typically exposed to very sophisticated tastes at a very young age. These kids tend to be less picky and learn about nutrition and cooking as a regular, normal part of their lives. Food lessons in those homes typically cover nutrition in very matter-of-fact ways, and these kids grow up with a true appreciation for the taste of good food. They also understand a slow pace of eating and really savoring small portions of food. We can all learn from that model, and our waistlines and health can benefit.

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