Why you should target children in the fight against obesity

February 4, 2016

Parent-led diet and lifestyle changes may not be as effective as when getting a child excited about new foods that they help prepare, according to two women leading the charge for better nutrition education.

Childhood obesity is a battle fought in the office of every pediatrician. However when the solution to the problem lies in getting whole families to adopt lifestyle changes, it can be a frustrating fight.

Two women believe they might have the answer. Instead of teaching parents to simply push more nutritious foods on children, they say educating children about new foods and involving them in the preparation process can have a “trickle up effect” benefiting the entire family.

Lynn Fredericks, founder of FamilyCook Productions in New York, and Antonia Demas, PhD, creator of the Food Is Elementary curriculum, have both found that by teaching children to try and create new and nutritious food, and about the health benefits of those foods, children adopt an active role in improving their health and spreading change to the rest of their families.

Childhood obesity affects roughly 17% of children and adolescents in the United States. There are many reasons children are fighting fat-sedentary lifestyles, too much television and personal media device use-but 1 theory is the increase in calorie-dense, nutrient deficient foods.

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According to 1 report, families in 2010 ate 50% of their meals outside the home compared to just 2% in 1900. Another study reveals a decline in preparing and eating food at home across all socioeconomic groups.

Pediatricians struggle with ways to combat childhood obesity for many reasons, one of those being that lifestyle changes necessary to have an effect on childhood eating and lifestyle habits must involve buy-in from the entire family. Convincing families to adopt these lifestyle changes can be challenging, particularly for families short on time and not invested in the effort.

Recent updates to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) guidelines on fighting childhood obesity stress offering more fruits and vegetables, and less sugar-sweetened beverages. Yet even meals eaten at home are not necessarily healthy with more families relying on fast food, and less parents spending time cooking. According to AAP, the number of women who cooked food at home decreased from 92% in 1965 to 68% in 2007 while the number of men who cooked over the same period increased from 29% to 42%. Overall rates for cooking at home declined over that period from 67% to 56%, and the amount of time spent on food preparation was halved.

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Although pediatricians are well-meaning in their advice that families adopt healthier lifestyles, there is little guidance on how families can incorporate this into their lifestyles and get their children to want to try new foods.

Fredericks believes the answer lies in starting with the child, not the parent.

Fredericks struggled decades ago as a newly divorced mother of 2 to find nutritious foods her children would eat. She found that by involving them in the preparation process, they became more excited about the food they ate and eager to try new things.

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Over the years, she has fostered this idea by creating a nutrition education program aimed at school-age children with the philosophy that teaching nutrition through cooking pleasurable meals they can re-create at home can actually change a child’s-and family’s-eating habits.

“We connect with ways to make people raise their self efficacy of what they can do and engage with food so after 1 class, we’ve already turned some light bulbs on for children and for parents.”

Fredericks offers classes for preschoolers with their parents, and older children. She “bombards” them with flavors from across the globe; teaches them how to prepare new things; and simplifies recipes that they can recreate at home.

“What we learned is we’ve been successful in having statistically significant changes in what parents are buying and what children and parents are willing to eat,” Fredericks says.

While children in her program certainly became more interested in what they were eating, and more likely to try new foods if they prepared them, Fredericks says there were also unintended effects of the program.

“Our program really was always designed as prevention, but what’s been so surprising with the children in particular has been the amazing weight loss that has gone on. It’s been kind of astounding,” she says. “We are not giving them diets; we’re not giving them anything but tools for cooking and a lexicon of foods that are good for you.”

Students in her program become more aware of the foods they are eating and go home to tell their parents about it and ask for new things. By learning to prepare foods themselves, the children are helping to invoke changes at home, she says.

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Even for low-income households, Fredericks says her methods allow families to create meals that can feed the family more than once in an economical way. The end result is cheaper, better nutrition for the whole family, she says.

“I get so happy for them because they’ve taken control of their health. It’s a big achievement because it’s not a crash diet. They’re taking control of their health in a sustainable way,” Fredericks says of her students that have lost weight and changed their lifestyles after participating in her program.

Many families are hesitant to make changes because so few parents have the time or skill to create meals at home these days, she says.

“We created a monster with convenience food. Now we have to dial it back,” Fredericks says. “It’s one of the single most insidious cultural problems that sets up families for failure.”

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Antonia Demas, PhD, embarked on a journey similar to Fredericks more than 40 years ago when her son was small and she noticed that few educators were taking nutrition seriously.

Nutrition education can have an impact on so many facets of a child’s well-being, Demas says. She now runs an education program that works with local school districts to change the way students think about food.

“I use food to teach math, science, social studies, art, literature. I see food as the hands-on vehicle to teach all the academic subjects. It makes learning come alive for the students,” Demas says.

So many children suffer from chronic diseases and constipation that Demas says can be prevented through proper nutrition. By working with children in the social setting of their school, and teaching them the prevention properties of different foods, Demas says she can change their eating behaviors and invoke healthy behaviors.

Programs like this are important because parents cannot help their children when they themselves are ill-prepared to adopt healthier lifestyles.

“Most pediatricians and adults have not had nutrition education,” Demas says. “The parents are the gatekeepers and they should be real advocates, and this is why they need the knowledge themselves. They haven’t been taught how to read labels; how to go shopping; and learn about vitamins. Most adults have very confused concepts of real nutrition.”

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By teaching children to think differently about foods, and get them excited to try new things through preparation and positive introductions, change becomes easy, she says.

“One thing parents don’t realize is the way they introduce foods and talk about foods have an enormous impact on their kids,” Demas says. “They need to rethink how they introduce foods, talk about foods. If they make an assumption that this is an exciting food and it’s going to be fun to cook it, it’s going to bring that excitement to the child.”

Peer pressure in the school setting makes this task even easier, Demas says. Students motivate each other to try new foods outside the home environment where parents may introduce their own food baggage from their childhood that might negatively affect a child’s desire to try a new food.

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Demas’ Food is Elementary curriculum is based on the doctoral research she conducted at a school in Trumansburg, New York. She found that as a result of her interventions that introduced 16 nutritious new foods to students, 35% of parents reported positive family eating behaviors at home. Another pilot Demas ran in Florida found that 71% of students reported using the tools they learned in her program at home, and in both programs, 100% of students felt they knew more about foods and were more excited to try new things than before participating in the program.

At another Florida school, Demas was invited by school administrators to develop healthier cafeteria options plus a culinary arts/nutrition program for students. Of the students that participated in her nutrition course, all of them experienced better grades and athletic performance; less aggressive behavior and acne; as well as weight loss by the end of the course. A cardiologist who evaluated the students as a part of the pilot also found that cholesterol rates declined in the students that participated in the program, and that the students saw and average weight loss of 3 pounds over the course duration.

Demas is currently working to have her program adopted and funded by more school districts across the country, and Fredericks will expand her program in the spring to offer a distance-learning version, but in communities without access to their programs, Fredericks says pediatricians should be able to refer families to other local resources that offer tools similar to hers.

Instead of just recommending a healthier lifestyle, pediatricians should point parents to the tools they need to create healthy meals for their families, as well as ways to involve the children and get them excited about healthy foods.

“Pediatricians should look up their cooperative extension or the land-grant university in their state which usually has some free cooking skills education. There’s usually someone in the community that are offering something and there’s a lot of really good books and videos,” Fredericks says. “Nobody makes any successful change unless they have a new skill. It has to come from believing that it is now possible not to fail. I’m not going to start cooking at home if I feel like I’m not going to succeed.”