Eating

Securing a Good Start to Education

Today’s topic addresses one that may seem obvious to us, but also surprising in the United States. Children who grow up hungry in the first few years of childhood have been shown to lag behind classmates in school years later. Food insecurity, or being without reliable access to nutritious food, is a phenomenon that can be found in the United States: more than 13 million children are currently living in food-insecure homes nationwide. A recent article summarized in NPR (originally published in the journal Child Development) found that children who live in these homes before the age of five are more likely to lag behind their classmates in school socially and cognitively.

 

Also, it appears that these children don’t catch up to their peers. Researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Education from 2000 to 2006 to follow more than 10,000 children born in these households throughout their young childhood. They also interviewed the parents of these children to ask them about recent times they may have worried about food for the household. The researchers found that the younger that children were when they were exposed to food hardship, the stronger the negative effect on their performance in kindergarten (performance was measured by their ability to pay attention in class, their tendency to be hyperactive or throw tantrums, and their math and reading skills).

 

This negative effect might not be entirely attributable to the children themselves. After all, if children are hungry, then their parents are likely to be as well. The researchers affirmed that parents who are hungry can be more irritable and tired, and are less likely to engage with their children. These findings are certainly not surprising, but they confirm some important facts about early childhood and the important link between nutrition, parent interaction, and school performance. It is difficult to design interventions for very young children before they attend daycare or preschool, but the projections from this stage in life to performance in school cannot be ignored.


Food insecurity is definitely not just a foreign phenomenon, and not just an adult one. That there are millions of American children at risk of being insufficiently prepared for school should shock us all - but thanks to this kind of research, we’ll be able to lay the groundwork for erasing this gap in potential for children starting now.

Study: Children’s Obesity Risks Increase During the Summer

This week’s topic may seem a bit funny in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, but it is very relevant any time of the year. 


Summer vacation is far away, but there’s reason to think about it ahead of time. A new national study (described here in the NYTimes) found evidence that obesity risks in young children are  higher when they are out of school than when they are in school. The fundamental question in debate surrounding obesity and children’s health is this: Does the cause of obesity exist primarily in school or outside of school? Recently, schools have updated their lunch menus, physical education classes ,and nutrition curriculums to reflect a growing awareness of obesity risks in  children. However, the findings of this study suggest that even with these improvements, healthy habits can be forgotten when they are not continued outside of school. 


Researchers hypothesized that if children's body mass index (BMI) grows the fastest during the school year, factors found in school environments could be a culprit for obesity risks. Conversely, they hypothesized that if BMI grows the fastest during the summer, that would mean the major risk factors could exist outside of school. They examined the weight gain of more than 18,000 children from the time they started kindergarten through when they finished second grade. The authors found that the prevalence of overweight or obese children increased between these years. A more striking finding was that the prevalence of being overweight or obese increased during summer vacation months, but did not increase during the school year. 


Intuitively, we can think of a few reasons why summertime might pose some weight control challenges for children. Children may go to sleep later and get less sleep during the summer, which could increase the risk for weight gain, according to another study in the New York Times. During summer breaks, students may also be prone to snacking and sedentary behaviors because recess and physical education classes are not scheduled into their daily routine.  Maintaining a healthy weight can be as challenging as maintaining reading and writing skills over the summer. Experts recommend that schools begin conversations with parents well before the school year ends to make plans for students’ diets and physical activity over the summer. These preemptive measures may be especially useful for students who may receive healthier meals at schools, but do not have access to nutritious food in their homes. 


Due to the holiday season, November and December is a time when young children spend more time at home with their families. Forming healthy behaviors during shorter breaks from school might help establish healthy habits that will last beyond long summer months. 

What Junk Food Does to Your Brain and Why Kids are Fighting Back to Get Healthier

 

We know that potato chips and sodas are addictive, but have you ever wondered about the science behind junk food? It turns out that junk food is actually as addictive as it is harmful to the body. Neuroscientists interviewed in The Atlantic found that foods like Oreos can be as addictive as psychoactive drugs, if not more so.  They discovered that “high-fat, high-sugar foods are stimulating the brain’s [pleasure centers]” in the same way that drugs can. A 2010 study cited in the article confirmed the addiction phenomenon when they fed lab rats bacon, sausage, cheesecake, and frosting for 40 days. With brain imaging, the researchers found the rats’ resulting brain activity to resemble that of cocaine and heroin addicts.

What does this mean? For children whose dietary staple may include snack foods, they may become conditioned to expect and crave junk food at an early age. This exacerbates the picky eating problem we discussed last week, and also contributes to other very real problems in children’s health like obesity.

Even though young children may be the targets of advertising companies who spend a fortune on researching methods to make junk food even more irresistible, study shows that teens are fighting back. Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas studied methods to help teens beat advertisers at their own game. Instead of “focusing on a future, healthier you” that seems abstract, these researchers introduced teenagers to an “exposé” article highlighting the manipulative methods of food industry executives and consultants as they strategized to get young people to eat more unhealthy food. In this way, choosing to eat healthy food became an act of rebellion against a socially unjust system of “controlling, hypocritical adults” that was conspiring to keep teens unhealthy.

Explaining to students about the importance of healthy food was just not enough. Students who read the expose article were more likely to associate healthy eating with autonomy and social justice. The success of this study suggests that teenagers and young students want to exert more control over their own health because they strongly associate their health with their independence. If anything can beat chemical addiction, it could very well be a student’s willpower to take charge of their own health.

Read a more detailed summary of this study here.

 

Picky Eaters and Their Families

We may often be quick to judge a child or their parents when we see a picky eater. Picky eaters can be perceived as unadventurous or a product of poor parenting skills. However, parents of picky eaters have more to worry about than social judgement. Pediatricians say that children who develop picky eating at an early age can have growth and development problems.

Parents of picky eaters have real reason to worry about their children’s proper intake of proteins, vitamins and minerals, and vegetables. After all, a child’s appetite is a major indicator of his or her health. Picky eaters are also hard to pinpoint because they generally eat as much as other children do, and they can also be thin or overweight. This means that even though they are probably not eating properly, they are getting their caloric intake in ways that are not nutritionally ideal. Parents look to pediatricians to reassure them that their child is growing at a normal rate, which is usually the case. However, in rare instances, doctors will test for developmental disorders like autism, gastrointestinal disorders, or food allergies. These abnormalities are definitely not the norm, but even the original issue alone - pickiness - can be a cause of major stress for parents.

Here are three tips that parents can do to alleviate picky eating habits:

  • According to Dr. Natalie Muth, a pediatrician interviewed for the New York Times, it’s important to expose children to new flavors even while their mother is pregnant and breastfeeding. It is ideal for children who are starting to eat solid foods (between 6 and 18 months) to have frequent exposure to many different foods at an early age.  

  • It’s ultimately up to the child to choose what to eat. Pediatricians recommend following a division of responsibility at the table: parents can provide diverse food choices and show that other family members, including other children, are trying different kinds of food.

  • Children who are learning about tastes may exhibit some sort of neophobia - fear of the new and unknown. They may be partial to eat “white foods” such as fried foods, breads, rice, and chips. Families who cater to children who are partial to these foods by giving them separate meals from everyone else in the household are actually encouraging picky eating.  In the New York Times article, Dr. Muth suggests that one family should eat one meal together. By eating one meal as a family, children can be eased into different types of food as they watch other family members eat the same meals.

Training young children at an early age to appreciate a variety of foods will help children develop healthy eating behaviors, therefore benefiting their health in the long run. Parents can help with children’s learning process by actively engaging with them to establish a dialogue about their food preferences. That way, parents can also encourage autonomy and responsible decision-making in their children by allowing them to make healthy food choices. The act of eating itself can be an activity for the family, and a way for a child to invest in his or her future.