If we want children to eat more healthily, it’s best to explain why

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I read this week about concerns that, in the UK, conditions such as scurvy and rickets are on the way back as a result of dietary deficiencies. A shift in the diet away from nutritious fare towards ‘junk’ and fast foods is said to be to blame. My experience is that many parents are keen to ensure that their children eat well, but sometimes are concerned that despite their best efforts, their child will steadfastly refuse to ‘eat their greens’.

This week, I came across this report regarding research into an approach to healthier eating in pre-school children. In this study, children were allowed access to literature about nutrition during snack breaks. Other children just had normal snack breaks with no access to nutrition literature [1]. The study lasted about three months.

According to the report, the children who had read the nutrition literature had a better understanding of things like the fact that food contains nutrients, and that different kinds of nutrients were important for various bodily functions. They were also more knowledgeable about processes such as the digestion of food in the stomach and the transport of nutrients in the bloodstream. Interestingly, these children also more than doubled their intake of vegetables during snack time, whereas the amount that the other children ate stayed about the same.

I like this research, at least in part because it utterly confirms what I have found in practice regarding diet, children and health: Even quite young children generally have enormous capacity to grasp nutritional and health concepts. What is more, I find it overwhelmingly true that usually the best way to get these concepts over to a child is to present them to the child directly. That is why, as much as possible, I speak directly to any child I see in practice (though I usually make remarks directly to the parent or carer too). Once a child understands the importance of a concept, I find they often become quite committed to it and ‘self-policing’.

I don’t think children are fundamentally different to adults in their thinking and behaviour: they are generally more likely to make and persist with changes if they understand how and why those changes may benefit them. It takes two minutes to explain the importance of blood sugar control or the potential role of milk in their eczema to a 5-year-old, but I’ve found the impact can be lasting and profound.

I think the method of delivery can be important too, and I’m always wary of patronising children. I try to avoid the modified way of speaking sometimes used with children. I may modify my vocabulary a bit and be slightly more playful, but when I talk to children about health I essentially talk to them as I would an adult. My belief is that children have much more ability to grasp health concepts than we sometimes give them credit for and don’t appreciate being talked to like they’re idiots.

How may this educational approach be useful for parents and carers? Well, for one, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to seek to inform children about nutrition and health. We may need to go beyond the ‘eat this because it’s good for you’ approach, and actually explain why that is. The same goes for less healthy fare.

Children are usually naturally curious and generally have considerable capacity to soak up information. Meal times provide a good opportunity to impart some nutritional knowledge. While these interactions need not be ‘sermons from the mount’, I think we should not shy away from giving children information and guidance on how to eat and live healthily, including some detail on why this is important where appropriate. If we don’t do this, we risk having our children believe the nonsense and misinformation usually dispensed by the food industry and those in its pay.


1. Gripshover S J, et al. Teaching Young Children a Theory of Nutrition: Conceptual Change and the Potential for Increased Vegetable Consumption. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612474827 [hr]

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