From the time they are born, children look to their parents as their first role models for all different types of behaviors, from smiling to verbal sounds to mannerisms. Children also take their healthy lifestyle cues, including nutrition and physical activity habits, from their parents. This gives parents an amazing opportunity to provide a solid foundation of healthy eating and exercise behaviors for both physical and mental health growth and development.
Over the past several years, U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded obesity prevention research conducted by UHealth – University of Miami Health System in a wide variety of Miami-Dade County preschool settings has consistently shown the power of positive nutritional role modeling by parents and teachers of young children. UHealth’s research goals were:
▪ Increase dietary intakes and variety of fruits and vegetables;
▪ Decrease dietary intakes of foods high in solid fats and added sugars;
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▪ Decrease the amount of television viewing and computer use;
▪ Increase physical activity in preschool children;
▪ Decrease the proportion of preschool children on an unhealthy growth trajectory.
Our study results over the years have consistently shown that both parents and teachers can have a positive impact on their young children’s nutrition and physical activity choices, resulting in healthy weight development. This nutritional gatekeeper/healthy lifestyle role model concept also suggests that empowering parents and teachers will result in a lasting effective impact if intervention happens when children are young.
Family conversation about food, family cooking and mealtime all provide opportunities for parents to be nutritional role models. By one estimate, the adult nutritional gatekeeper influences 72 percent of a child’s nutrition and physical activity patterns. Adult food choices are couched in attitudes and beliefs toward diet and nutrition that will influence a child’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviors about food. Children easily pick up on their parents’ attitudes about food, particularly if they see parents have a bad emotional reaction to broccoli, carrots or some other healthy food. When this occurs, kids are less likely to be open to eating healthy foods.
Some great ways to lead by example include not skipping meals — especially breakfast — and taking correct portion sizes. Parents should have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables available in the house and at meals, limiting junk food such as candy, chips and cookies. Offer drinking water and skim or two percent milk instead of soda, and include whole grains, lean meats, fish and beans and lentils in family meals.
Some other ways parents can support their children’s nutrition habits include:
▪ Having healthy items in lunches and after-school snacks, including pre-cut fruits and vegetables that make great quick snacks.
▪ Keeping fresh fruit out and within reach in the kitchen so it’s the first snack item available.
▪ Packing snacks and lunch boxes with small bags of mixed nuts, string cheese and peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread.
UHealth’s collaborative research with the Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department shows that when children ages 6-14 are offered a healthy snack in the Fit2Play after-school program they will not only eat it, but will enjoy it. We have also found that children in this age group are eager to learn about nutrition and how it affects their personal growth and development. They are full of questions, and our results show they have made significant gains in health and wellness knowledge throughout the school year over the past five years.
As children enter grade school and become more independent with their food choices, parents can still be active lifestyle role models. As with mealtimes, make being active a family affair too. We are fortunate to live in an area where we can enjoy the outdoors year round, so don’t be afraid to try out new activities on the weekends together as a family. If parents have a positive attitude about the benefits of being physically active, their children most likely will too.
Our research among children of all ages shows that not only does regular exercise and activity increase physical and cardiovascular health, it can improve sleep, attention and school performance; reduce stress, depression, and anxiety; and minimize illness, all while maintaining a healthy weight. When combined with correct nutrition choices, the outcome is a happy and healthy child.
Sarah E. Messiah, Ph.D., MPH, is co-director of the Division of Community-Based Research and Training at the Mailman Center for Child Development. The Department of Pediatrics at UHealth – University of Miami Health System is nationally and internationally acclaimed for education, research, patient care and biomedical innovation. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.