In the 21st century, childhood nutrition challenges are on the rise and many have a nutrition-related component. It's left American parents looking for a solution, and many look to food as the answer.
One in three kids are overweight or obese. The incidence of preschooler weight problems is higher than ever. Eating disorders in children are increasing, and affecting kids at younger ages. Food allergy, ADHD and prolonged picky eating are commonplace.
The common answer for all of these problems is some sort of food modification: eat this, but don't eat that, eat less, eat healthier food, eat more food, stay away from certain foods, eat more food variety.
Eat. Don't. Eat. More. Eat. Less.
The food solution
The problem with the food message is that it focuses on what we eat (or don't, or shouldn't, or wouldn't) leading to the belief that getting food right is the answer.
Pitting food against food, these nutrition directives encourage us to avoid the bad food and eat the healthy food. Not a terrible idea, entirely. But, these idealistic mantras imply something else: that we are bad if we eat bad food, or at least, something bad will happen to us if we do. Alternatively, if we eat healthy, we will be healthy.
If you're a parent, the stakes are even higher: if your child eats badly, then you may be failing in the `raising a healthy kid' department. This notion that perfect food means perfect eating which results in perfect health -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- is keeping parents from raising the healthy kids they want.
There's more to
What if getting the right food into your child is only part of the task? Wouldn't it be a relief to know that the perfect, healthy food may not be the only answer?
It's time to redefine childhood nutrition. Childhood nutrition is feeding: wholesome and nutritious food provided in a rhythmic structure, coupled with a positive interaction between child and parent (or caregiver) during mealtimes, and an understanding of the continuum of childhood development and its influences on eating. In a nutshell, a comprehensive strategy including what children eat, how they are fed, and why their development and temperament influence eating is the modern approach parents need today to raise a healthy child.
Without addressing all three of these areas, it's like playing hockey without the equipment.
Why food as the
Research shows us that many of the food tactics parents use to get to ideal nutrition don't always work with kids, and may even be counter-productive. For example, when you push a picky eater to eat better, or more food, he may push back, not eat well at all, and may even eat worse! Or, when you remove all sweets and tasty foods from the home in an effort to curtail eating, it may not result in weight loss, healthy eating, or satisfaction. In fact, it may lead to the opposite--ambivalence toward healthy food, and a greater focus on sweets. Even removing all "bad" food from the home may result in negative behaviors such as sneaking desired foods outside of the home, or eating when bored or for emotional reasons.
And my personal pet peeve -- sneaking vegetables into meals without telling your child -- may erode a fundamental trust in the parent-child relationship, affecting a child's eating.
Even with good intentions, these food-focused approaches can have negative side effects, catching parents by surprise, leaving them frustrated and looking for more food solutions. This can perpetuate the widespread notion that somehow another magical food (or sneaky strategy) is the answer!
Food is important, but it's only a piece of the childhood nutrition puzzle.
We need to modernize childhood nutrition
It's time for a shift in our thinking: from healthy food tactics to a comprehensive feeding strategy. Perhaps then, parents won't feel so frustrated, confused and guilty when their child rejects broccoli, panhandles for snacks, or suddenly adopts a questionable dietary practice.
What children are fed, how it's done, and understanding why children behave the way they do around food and eating is the broader perspective parents need for childhood nutrition in the 21st century.
These three components are equally important to raising healthy kids and when emphasized equally, can be life and health changing, for parent and child.
Jill Castle, MS, RD is a registered dietitian, member of the Connecticut Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and childhood nutrition expert. She is the co-author of the book, "Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School," and creator of Just The Right Byte, a child and family nutrition blog. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan.