For many parents, helping children develop healthy eating habits is a struggle. With the hectic pace of many families' lives and with more women working full time, even health-conscious parents are finding it easy to tolerate less than desirable eating habits.
"A lot of parents don't want to struggle with the issues so they give up, letting kids make their own choices," says Jane Rees, director of nutrition service/education in adolescent medicine and lecturer in pediatrics at the University of Washington schools of Medicine and Public Health. "But children's judgment is less mature and they still depend on parents to guide them."
It is best to start training children about foods as soon as they can talk since they are most influenced by their families during the preschool years. Additionally, research has shown that heart and blood vessel disease can begin very early and that hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis) can be associated with a high-fat diet.
Parents should carefully read food labels to check nutrients and ingredients. Most kids are attracted to the advertising and packaging of food, including highly sugared cereals. Rees suggests fitting them in occasionally as a treat in an overall diet that is focused on low sugar, low fat, and unprocessed foods.
Although it's a myth that children become hyperactive by eating too much sugar, sugary food is still bad for oral health, can be stored as fat, and aggravates diabetes, says Rees. However, completely denying children sugar will only make it more tempting.
Rees suggests involving young children in the food preparation process. For example, teach children how to set the table during their preschool years. Take them grocery shopping. Let them choose some fruits and vegetables as well as the occasional treats, advises Rees. "You will see their capabilities grow astronomically," she says. "However, if parents don't follow the natural signs that kids are ready to help, they will lose the window of opportunity."
Developing children's attitude toward food should be similar to teaching them how to handle money -- by giving them growing responsibility along with sensible access. If children are properly prepared, they are more likely to make healthy food choices once they enter school. They will probably experiment some, but they will have a preference for fresh foods like fruits and vegetables along with foods like french fries, says Rees.
What about changing the diet of children who have already fallen into the junk food habit? Once children reach age 10 or 12, it is very difficult to change their habits or coerce them into eating healthier foods. Rees suggests calling a family meeting to rationally discuss ways to eliminate most junk foods and substitute more nutritious ones. If they learn to eat a well-balanced diet, they won't need vitamin supplements, she says.
"Nutritional guidance won't work unless you have built up good sense (of nutrition) over time," says Rees. "However, even children who have developed a taste for nutritious food may change when they reach teenage years. Teenagers like to experiment with everything, including risky food behavior. They might gravitate toward highly processed foods, but once they become older and more independent they are likely to return to the healthy habits they had growing up."
Other common problems among teenagers include girls who may view food as a threat to slimness, or boys who take muscle-building supplements. About 25 to 40% of teenagers are overweight, mostly from lack of exercise in combination with eating too much fat and sugar. This problem can turn into an emotional one and become a vicious circle -- eating, or starving, to cope with unhappiness.
"If you see a real eating problem and there is anger and conflict," advises Rees, "seek professional intervention." Helpful support of family, friends and healthcare professionals is the best method for addressing eating disorders.