Parents, kids and food education
This article was inspired by an unfortunate disagreement that had arisen between me and someone I know. This disagreement was sadly over my efforts to encourage healthy eating in my Daughter (who was a very aware and conscious 5 year old at the time) and from the education I had provided her regarding the benefits and the potential dangers of unhealthy food. My efforts with my daughter and with many other people whose lives and healths I have helped improve over the years, have never been based on exaggerations, or scare tactics. My efforts, identical to my articles, views, values and philosophies in nutrition, have always been influenced and supported by scientifically validated facts and evidence as well as logical rationale.
This is an important point to note. I don’t believe in lying to my child in the same way I don’t expect my child to lie to me. In fact I have a real hard time with the whole Santa thing and just avoid the question when she asks me. I don’t believe in discouraging them from eating crisps by telling them, “if you eat crisps you’ll get cancer”. I don’t agree with scaring them into eating healthy food. In contrast I disagree with saying things like “if you eat your vegetables you can have dessert” as I also don’t agree with bribing them to eat healthy food with the reward of eating unhealthy food afterwards either. In fact it completely contradicts my point of promoting healthy food over unhealthy food. I don’t agree with distorting the truth in any way or promoting unhealthy eating habits to promote healthy eating to kids, at all.
Sometimes the best way to teach a child, is to teach a child. Sometimes a child needs to learn and know instead of being told what to do or what not to do. If you can educate a child on why they should be eating healthy food, why they should only eat chocolate sparingly, then that’s half the battle. Once a child is aware of the effect on health food can have, based solely on facts, it’s human nature and instinct to avoid or at least reduce contact with things that we know could be harmful to us through behavioural change. This works particularly well in children, more so than in adults because children function through more primal instincts and emotions. Where as with maturity, comes the complex advancement in attitudes, willful ignorance, pride and stubborn behaviours which can of course have a negative effect on one’s on health.
Ignorance is far more common in adults especially with regards to health. Ignorant not just about nutrition, but willfully ignorant to acknowledge anything that may challenge their current paradigm, regardless of logic or fact. But that’s a discussion for another article. Children’s instincts and emotions are far simpler. They are more instinctive in nature in the respect that they show less ignorance to dangers in general. This instinctive nature can guide children in making healthier food choices. Based on this they can potentially show much more enthusiasm in being healthy, particularly when they understand and are aware of the negative effects such things can have on their health. In the same way a child can learn to associate strangers or say a wasp with negative connotations you can also create a negative association with unhealthy food.
This brings me swiftly to my point. This is how I have educated my daughter. I’ve made her aware of facts and educated her on how to be healthy. She can tell the difference between refined and wholegrain carbohydrates, with a fairly good understanding of which ones can lead to sharp rise and falls in blood sugar and which ones don’t. Some kids her age are still learning the alphabet or their months, but my Daughter has been able to distinguish all the major muscles on the body from gastronemus to trapezius with near perfect pronunciation from the age of 4. What’s great is that she generally enjoys learning about food and is always quizzing me for information and then randomly recites information back to me two weeks later, much to my surprise and satisfaction. I would say she is the epitome and vision of what many public health professionals including myself want for the future of children in this country.
It’s now becoming more common for children to get diagnosed with adult onset type II diabetes despite the fact its usually diagnosed in adults over the age of 40, children that are now on medication because of an adopted, family drawn perception that has been perpetuated by clever food marketing in the media, that certain refined and processed foods are normal foods to eat and are part of our staple diet. But yet my daughter knows what diabetes is. Not only does she know what it is she’s aware of what foods are potential promoters of it and she limits her intake of them foods. Given that there are more children now obese and overweight with diet related diseases than ever before, the importance of this can’t be down-played or shrugged off.
Chocolate is NOT food. Crisps are NOT food. Refined, processed, chemically altered, artificially made, aggressively manufactured, contaminated man made junk is NOT food. If it does not grow from natural vegetation teach your child to limit their intake of it and educate them about why.
So what age is the right age to tell a child fruit offers many nutrients that help you learn better at school? when is the right time to tell a child a diet high in sugar will decay their teeth and can lead to health problems? when is the right time to tell them that having crisps for lunch will only provide empty calories that will not give them lots of long lasting energy to play with their friends at break? when is the right time to tell a child the saturated fat in McDonald’s burgers is not good for their heart and to be weary of marketing ploys designed to appeal to a child’s immediate desires? The main point of being a parent is to look after and protect your child. It’s to provide them with the best quality of life possible. Then surely wouldn’t the right answer to the question; when is the right time to teach kids about health? be at the very least, sooner, rather than later?
I may be criticised for teaching my daughter things she “doesn’t need to know about at her age” but at least I know with confidence my Daughter is not part of the huge public health crisis where many of today’s kids will grow up unhealthy, over weight, nutrient deficient and lacking fundamental food education to protect them from diet related diseases in the future. Now that for me, is a comforting thought and well worth the criticism.