September is childhood obesity month. I have been studying factors related to childhood obesity for the entirety of my professional career and the one and only thing that everyone can agree on is: It’s complicated!
Over the past 40 years, childhood obesity rates have tripled. Children are experiencing adverse health conditions such as heart disease and type two diabetes that were previously reserved only for older adults. These conditions greatly increase children’s risk of obesity and related health problems in adulthood. Extensive research shows that the best and most effective way to reduce obesity rates is to intervene early and prevent obesity from occurring in the first place. Thus, promoting a healthy diet and exercise routine in the early childhood years can prevent not only childhood obesity but also the risk for adult obesity later on.
This all sounds great in theory, but as I’ve heard from many parents over the years, this is easier said than done. Understanding the barriers that parents face when trying to promote a healthy lifestyle for their children helps researchers and practitioners test and support more realistic strategies for parents.
- “My children are asking for desserts/junk food. I don’t want to fight with them or deprive them of these treats!”
Unfortunately, this is a very common problem that parents deal with. Caregivers and researchers who are trying to promote healthy eating and nutrition in early childhood have to contend with snacks and junk food specifically marketed to children using their favorite cartoon characters and/or celebrities. They also have to compete with the fact that junk foods often contain added sugar, fat, and salt, which research shows makes them highly palatable and tempting in ways that healthier foods with naturally occurring sugars and fats do not.
There is no easy solution to this problem; most children will almost always choose the Disney princess fruit snacks over the generic celery with peanut butter option. However, there is some newer research suggesting that if parents can reduce children’s exposure to these highly tempting foods—for example, by not keeping them in the house altogether—then they may be able to reduce cues for these foods (since children won’t be seeing them all the time or expecting to be able to eat them at home) and, subsequently, conflict over children wanting and asking for these items to improve nutrition in early childhood.
- “My children don’t like healthy food. I’m worried that if I make food they don’t like, they won’t eat it, they will go hungry, and I will spend my limited food budget on items that eventually end up in the trash.”
Did you know that children often have to taste a food 10 or more times before they develop a taste for it? For parents with a limited food budget, this can result in more food waste than they can afford, so it is easier and more economical to stick only to foods that they know their children will eat. Unfortunately, this often results in an unbalanced diet that relies heavily on processed foods with added sugar, fat, and salt (because who doesn’t find these foods delicious?).
Research that I conducted with colleagues at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that diet quality can be improved in picky eaters (in fact, improvement was stronger in picky eaters than non-picky eaters). In this intervention, parents and children were taught the importance of healthy eating as well as strategies to incorporate healthy eating into their lifestyles. Children were encouraged to become involved in the meal-planning process and many parents improved their own eating, which likely resulted in positive healthy eating role models for the children. Families were also provided with recipes to support their healthy eating efforts.
- “I’d like to serve my family healthy foods, but it’s too expensive.”
It’s easy for researchers like me to tell parents to serve healthier food to their families. But it’s much more difficult for parents, especially those with tighter budgets, to save enough money to actually provide healthier foods to their families. However, research that I published with colleagues at the NIH shows that parents can serve their families healthier food without spending more. That is not to say that providing healthy foods on a budget is never challenging or that access to affordable, fresh, healthy foods is never a barrier for low-income individuals, but our results showed that families that improved their diet quality by eating more whole plant foods (whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables) were able to do so without spending more. This is because they often substituted affordable healthy foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes for expensive unhealthy foods such as processed meat. They also stopped wasting money on calorically dense, nutrient-poor snack/junk foods and started primarily purchasing foods that supported their family’s nutritional needs.
Understanding the very real barriers and challenges that parents and caregivers face when trying to help their children lead healthier lives helps us provide parents with the support they need to minimize or eliminate the adverse effects of these barriers.
At Fors Marsh Group, we are experts in understanding the factors that influence childhood obesity directly (such as diet quality, physical activity, childhood nutrition, and sleep) and indirectly ( such as lack of knowledge). We also understand factors such as poor access to fresh healthy foods and competing demands for time, money, and energy. We have partnered with numerous federal clients such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to understand low-income parents’ experiences purchasing and serving food to their young children and tested intervention materials designed to improve childhood nutrition and low-income children’s diet quality.