A couple weeks ago, I read with dismay a new report from the U.K. that showed child obesity rates continue to rise there. Likewise in the U.S., obesity rates amongst children remain stubbornly high and perhaps even more disturbing is that 13.9% of preschoolers are considered obese. While the levels of overweight children have plateaued, and even fallen a bit in some areas, the prevalence of extremely obese children continues to rise.
This, of course, has enormous implications for healthcare systems in all of the developed world because obesity is associated with many kinds of health problems: higher levels of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, not to mention expensive health conditions such as knee and hip replacements, and other morbidity and mortality issues. And the bad news is, once a child or adult is overweight, it has proven to be extremely difficult to lose the weight and maintain the loss. According to the American Heart Association, obese kids have an eighty percent chance of staying obese their entire lives.
This begs the question: what is going to happen to these children when they become adults? As an economist, I ask, who is going to pay for their health care costs?
As stewards of our children and therefore, our future adults, we must be vigilant about really helping them to be healthier eaters. And here is the simple truth I refer to in my title:
We have to start when they are young.
We must help our children to not become overweight, because if they do, it is going to be a battle they will have to fight their entire lives and usually with little success.
Let me make a distinction, I am not talking about baby fat here, I’m talking about obesity. If you have a question about this, look at the Body Mass Index (BMI) charts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We must be vigilant to help our children and here’s the thing — it’s a lot easier to do when they are young, because of course we control the type and amount of food that we buy and prepare for them.
My life’s work is about teaching and inspiring children to lead a healthy lifestyle. As a part of that mission, I help parents understand ways that they can encourage their children to be healthier. One of the main ways to start a child off on a good foundation, is to help them to eat more vegetables. Nine out of ten children, after all, still don’t eat enough.
Because I’m a geek and I’ve done a lot of research on this, it might help you to know that human beings are hard-wired to not like vegetables. Way back when humans were in the hunter/gatherer stage, sweet foods such as fruits, were much less likely to be poisonous than savory foods.
That makes it hard to succeed in getting our kids to eat more vegetables. I get it. That’s where I come in. There are many tips and suggestions I give to help you along. But, as a broad stroke, we have to start thinking as a society and culture how to improve our children’s relationship with vegetables and fruits and other healthy foods, and to use the science that already exists to help us do that.
One of my favorite books that I’ve mentioned before is “Influencer: The Power to Change Anything,” by Kerry Grenny, Joseph Maxfield, David McMillan, Ron Switzler, and Al Patterson. They make the point that to change anyone including yourself, you should start by looking at what works. Find someone who has done and succeeded at the thing you want to do, and then study their methods.
The book makes a case that usually only two or three things account for success and therefore focus on just a couple things. This tidbit of information makes any task seems much less daunting. I mean, who can’t change two or three things? (They have tips for how to change behavior too.)
And here’s the cool thing about researching and finding successful methods: in this day and age, chances are someone has already studied what works and written about it. (By the way, this is an excellent book to read whether you’re running a corporation or a household, trying to change a reluctant customer’s mind or a recalcitrant teenager’s behavior.)
Back to our kids. Here are three already researched and proven methods to get your child to eat more vegetables:
1. A 2007 study suggests that persevering in offering children a particular vegetable can help them develop a taste for it. In a study with young children, it was explored if kids would accept a vegetable into their diet if they did not previously like it. What was found is that toddlers can be made to like a new food by introducing it five to ten times. It might take a little longer with preschoolers, up to fifteen times, but you can still help them develop a taste for it. Eventually more than 70% of the young children liked the tested vegetable. The cool thing is that nine months later, 63% of the originally tested group, still liked it.
When I am doing book readings at schools, I tell the kids that they have to taste a vegetable seven times, and if they do, they will like the vegetable. They always love this. It’s as if I have given them some kind of valuable secret (which I have), and a way to removing the nagging and actually enjoy their meal.
2. Researchers at Texas A&M University, looking for patterns in food consumption among elementary school children, found an interesting quirk about when and why kids choose to eat their vegetables. After analyzing plate waste data from nearly 8,500 students, it seems there’s at least one variable that tends to affect whether kids eat their broccoli, spinach or green beans more than anything: what else is on the plate. In short, kids are much more likely to eat their vegetable portion when it’s paired with a food that isn’t so delicious it gets all the attention.
Try this: put a vegetable on your child’s plate (make sure you do a good job cooking it for Pete’s sake), put the plate in front of the child who is waiting for his dinner and tell them that they can get started and the main dish is almost ready. That way the vegetable is not competing with the chicken nuggets or french fries. Or try pairing it with liver or baked fish.
3. My company, Bloomers Island, has found that over 90% of the thousands of kids we’ve worked with will eat a vegetable if they’ve grown (or are growing) it. This is based on our own metrics. So we set about to make growing a vegetable as fun for kids and as easy for grownups as possible.
Growing is a long process that also improves children’s delayed gratification skills, but in the meantime, while you’re waiting for the vegetable to grow and ripen, you can take your child to the grocery store and tell them that this is what they’re growing. You can buy it, ask them to help you find a recipe they might like, and then help you cook it. These are all important steps to establishing a healthy vegetable relationship.
There are other scientific ways discussed in the studies linked above, that work. You can read about them and try your own interpretations based on the research, but remember to try only two or three methods at once.
I’m not saying that if kids eat more vegetables they will not have to worry about being overweight or that childhood obesity will be cured, but … it is a good first step.
What successful methods have you used to get your kids to eat their vegetables? Please share in the comment section below.