Shahin Soltanian (PhD in Philosophy)
One of the major health concerns of the 21th Century is Obesity. Food variety is available more than ever before and technology has resulted in most individuals being less physically active. The availability of ready-made food at the supermarket, local takeaway, restaurant and store which is usually made out of unhealthy ingredients has changed the eating habits of most people. A combination of all such factors is what has caused a worldwide pandemic of people being overweight. The problem with habits is that they are hard to change.
Generally speaking when a person has grown up eating a certain type of food all their life their taste buds are bound to be used to such flavors. I have met many people who had a diet of regular spicy food since childhood and find anything that is not spicy bland. I have met others (majority of individuals I meet) who are so used to sugar that anything without sugar or some kind of sweetness is not palatable for them. Hence I believe the key to individuals having a healthy lifestyle (exercise, diet, weight and the benefits that come with it) as an adult is if they develop such a habit as a child. But how is this achieved in today’s world on the part of the parents in particular and by society in general? To start with we need to assess the impediments to children developing healthy eating habits.
Children eat and do what is made available to them by those who look after them comprising of parents, caregivers and school. Therefore, it is the parents and caregivers who are the first reason for how their children’s taste buds develop as they grow into adulthood. There are many reasons why parents don’t instill healthy eating habits in children. Below we will go through some of them and try to find a solution in this article.
Reason 1: Lack of Knowledge and Awareness Regarding Healthy Food
Probably one of the main reasons is that most parents and caregivers simply lack the knowledge of what it means to eat healthy and nutritious meals themselves. This problem is exasperated by the fact that most people do not know how to go about checking hidden unhealthy ingredients in products they buy. Many individuals are completely unaware that despite the fact that they add no sugar into the food they are eating many products actually have added sugar. Most sauces, spreads as well as dairy products such as yoghurt and flavored milk have added sugar.
There is a lack of awareness that although processed sugar is quite unhealthy, excess glucose intake from other sources are just as bad if not worst. I know of many people who in an attempt to have better eating habits stop adding sugar to their tea. But they go on to eat several dates along with their tea which ends up having more sugar than the original added sugar. Carbohydrates also turn into glucose (see this link: Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar) So quitting sugar but adding several extra pieces of white bread is not necessarily a healthier option.
Solution: In the first instance it is the individuals themselves, whether parent or not, that need to make the effort to become informed about healthy eating and lifestyle. This does not mean that government organizations should be standing by. Government policies can include methods of informing people of healthy eating habits and exercise though various different methods such as the media and school education.
Reason 2: Convenience in Eating Unhealthy
Foods low in nutritional value and high in unhealthy ingredients are more easily available than healthy food. This becomes a little tricky. A person can buy a packet of carrots just as easily as two packets of chips or dried fruit at the supermarket. However, the packets of chips can be given to the children or carried to an outing without much preparation. A container of carrots on the other hand needs to be prepared by cutting them into eatable portions and stored in an appropriate container. Dried food also last longer. Many dried fruits however have shocking levels of added sugar.
Solution: Like anything else important to a person, an individual can reorganize their priorities to include time for preparing healthy food. Instead of two hours of watching TV or going on social media, do so for an hour and spend the other one hour preparing healthy eating options.
Reason 3: Cultural Eating Habits
There are many different cultures around the world that have developed their dishes and eating habits based on their historical geopolitical environment. Those environments have changed over the years but the eating habits intended for it has remained the same. If historically the lifestyle of a particular ethnic group included certain level of intense physical activity then the cultural dishes of that group might be high in calories in the form of carbohydrates.
Solution: Since circumstances leading to the development of such eating habits have changed and life has become more sedentary the eating habits need to change and adapt if long term health goals are to be achieved. This does not mean culturally unique foods need to be eliminated altogether to stay healthy. It just means there need to be adjustments to dishes in order to keep the flavour while making it healthier. Cultural pride should not be associated with unhealthy eating habits.
Reason 4: Parents Don’t Want Their Kids to Miss Out
I have heard many parents with the mentality that if they teach their children to develop healthy eating habits and avoid unhealthy food they are stopping them from experiencing fun things like eating a lollipop. Some think that if they do this their children will binge on such things at an older age. To demonstrate the fallacy of this type of thinking I usually make an analogy regarding smoking tobacco. Imagine a parent who has smoked all their life and did not live in a culture that frowns on smoking allows their children to smoke. When you inform them that they are actually harming their children by allowing them to smoke they turn around and tell you that they don’t want them to miss out. What if they miss out now and grow up and become chain smokers because of not having smoked as a child? That is ridiculous you say. To someone with awareness regarding healthy nutritious eating habits it sounds just as ridiculous for parents to think their children are missing out if they don’t eat unhealthy food.
Once when I was around five or six years old I sat next to my great grandmother who was a smoker. She came from a generation that had no idea about the adverse effects of smoking. She offered me a puff from her precious cigarette in the view that she is doing me a favour. I refused because I always hated smoking. But in her mind she did not want me to miss out on something she found enjoyable.
Solution: If a person does not start smoking up to a certain age it is very unlikely they would do so later on and will most likely be quite aversive to it. In the same way, if a person is used to healthy nutritious foods rather than foods high in sugar content and other unhealthy ingredients will in the majority of cases grow up with a taste for healthy food and an aversion for unhealthier options.
Parents need to think, just like my great grandmother is it the case that they are imposing what they believe to be enjoyable onto their children despite it being unhealthy. If children are brought up not to like lollipops not only they don’t think they missed out but will also thank their parents in the future.
Reason 5: Financial Situations of Parents
The reality of the world we live in today is that ready-made unhealthy food is much cheaper than healthy alternatives. Buying fresh vegetables and fruits and then having the time to prepare them all cost more money than a takeaway meal from the fast-food joint nearby. This means that people in lower socioeconomic circumstances who cannot afford healthy food options and don’t have the time to prepare it will likely resort to unhealthy available options instead.
The other issue is that it seems companies with cheap unhealthy products know where to advertise their food. In many countries it is likely to find advertisement for unhealthy food options more apparent in lower socioeconomic locations in a city than ones from higher socioeconomic areas.
Solution: The most important solution for the financial barrier to healthy eating needs to come from the government. The government must introduce policies that tax unhealthy food and use that tax to subsidize healthier options. This is better for the governments fiscally too because healthier individuals means less individuals using the public health and financial aid systems. So a combination of information output regarding healthy eating and taxing of unhealthier alternatives is probably a useful government approach.
But the fact that healthier food is more expensive does not dissolve individuals from responsibility altogether. Individuals can adjust and reassess their budget to account for healthy food as much as possible.
Reason 6: Societal and Peer Pressure
One of the worst impediments to developing a healthy eating habit is peer and societal pressure. Such pressures are ideological and others personal. In it is extremely unhelpful to set a good healthy eating habit for your kids just to see them eating unhealthy food when they are at a relative or friend’s house. Some relatives or friends might assume, as mentioned above, that parents are causing their kids to miss out on “fun” food. Others might have misguided ideas about having healthy eating habits is equal to having an eating disorder. There might even be some who are simply jealous because they refuse to put in the effort themselves.
Solution: Teaching your children healthy eating habits and the confidence to say no is a behaviour that parents should be instilling in their children. Most people will be surprised when they see how good kids are in taking a stance about what they believe in when facing difficult social situations. Children should be brought up to be polite but firm in saying no to unhealthy alternatives. There will be one of three reactions to children’s refusal to eat something unhealthy. Either the family or friend will appreciate their intelligence, politeness and confidence, the ideal situation. The family or friend will be upset. It is time to reassess how much time you want to interact or socialize with such people if any. There will be awkward silence. In this last case, it is both good for children to learn how to deal with such situations and the adults involved getting an idea on how to deal with it next time.
Reason 7: Pressure from Big Companies
Major food companies and fast food stores will be resistant to anything that would decrease their profits. Cigarette companies, for example, fought tooth and nail to stop cigarette packages displaying health warnings. It seems however, either because of the experience with the cigarette companies or because of available options to continue to make profit, food companies are more willing to innovate their products to make them healthier.
Solution: People’s eating habits, active role of the government in spreading information regarding healthy eating habits and government taxing policies could change the way food companies provide and serve food.
Reason 8: Treats for doing/being Good
Based on the misguided idea that unhealthy foods are fun many parents use it for reward and punishment. If a child does well at a task or behaves as they were told they get a treat of the unhealthy food. If on the other hand they have not done their homework or eaten their food fast enough they are chastised by taking away the “fun”. This instills the idea that unhealthy food is 1) a rewarding experience and 2) a fun treat. It is based on the parents’ ideas of fun and what constitutes a treat which they developed during their childhood.
Solution: Cut out all unhealthy foods and avoid rewarding or chastising children using food.
Is Exercise Enough?
Many parents are unaware of importance of nutrition in their children’s weight management. It is common to hear an individual sigh about how much exercise they do without seeing result in terms of weight loss. However, the most important factor for weight gain, maintenance or loss has to do with nutrition. A person’s weight fluctuations have to do with the amount of calories the body takes in compared to the amount it uses. Calories are the energy fuel of the body. If the body takes in more calories than it uses up it will store those calories for later and weight increases. If the body takes in fewer calories than it uses the result is weight loss. If the calories it takes in equals the amount it uses then the individual’s weight is maintained. Genetics do play a role in how an individual’s body metabolizes food and the calories that come with it. However, the most important thing in weight fluctuation is calories. This is in a normal case where underlying medical conditions or medications don’t affect the way the body reacts or metabolizes food. (See this link: Antipsychotic-associated Weight Gain: Management Strategies and Impact on Treatment Adherence). In cases of medical condition or medication weight can still be managed using calorie calculation and food management.
Exercise has separate benefits both in terms of health and aesthetic value but when it comes to weight management it plays a very small part. An individual does not burn enough calories during an exercise routine to make up for large amounts of calorie intake from unhealthy food. For a healthy lifestyle there needs to be an appropriate diet and exercise plan.
In conclusion, developing healthy eating habits for children will result in a longer more enjoyable lifespan with less medical complications as well as the aesthetic benefit that accompanies it. Children will not only be thankful to their parents for such results but will pass on the same habits to their children.
Dr Shahin Soltanian has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Auckland. He is the author of The Kashfence Philosophy (Discovering Through Rational and Scientific Analysis). His undergraduate studies included in addition to philosophy, psychology and civil engineering. He has helped many people with weight management and fitness.