You’re Not The Boss of My Body! How to Support Healthy Habits in Children

By Michelle May, M.D.

How to Support Healthy Habits in Children

family sitting down to dinner

Most of the proposals in Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, are right on target but I just wish she had chosen to focus on health instead of weight.

Aren’t all children and all adults at risk for being overfed, undernourished, and under-active? Wouldn’t all of us benefit from healthier eating and physical activity regardless of weight? We live in an abundant food environment. Food is fast, convenient, often highly processed, and relatively inexpensive. To protect our children from becoming victims of this environment, we must make sure they have the tools to thrive while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The good news is that children are born with the most important skill: the instinctive ability to know how much food their body needs. Instinctively, babies cry to let their parents know when they’re hungry. Toddlers in perpetual motion eat only small amounts of food but manage to eat frequently enough to meet their needs. During periods of rapid growth or activity, they may be hungry all the time. When their calorie requirements decrease, they lose interest in food.

girl sharing ice cream with dogThe bad news is that we can destroy their instinctive eating skills with our good intentions. If parents or other caregivers feed a baby to calm every cry, the baby may learn that eating can soothe any discomfort. When they’re given food to keep them quiet or busy, they learn that they can distract and entertain themselves with food.

Once a child is old enough to sit at the table, well-intentioned parents will play games and praise the child to encourage them to eat. They may say “Good boy! You ate all your dinner!” This is a wonderful time for creating positive feelings about mealtime but it also teaches the child that eating makes mommy and daddy happy.

Parents may also coerce older children to eat everything they were served by saying “clean your plate or you don’t get dessert.” Children may decide that since their parents have to bribe them to eat it, the dinner must be the “yucky stuff” and sweets are the reward for eating more than they were hungry for. The result is a lifetime membership in the Clean Plate Club. The bottom line is that although meeting the basic nutritional needs of children is critical, it’s important to provide meals and snacks in a way that respects their hunger and fullness cues and teaches them that while eating should be enjoyable, food is primarily for nourishment. If not, the stage is set for food and weight problems in the future.

Here are the keys to helping children thrive in our abundant food environment.
  • Children are born with the ability to naturally regulate their food intake to meet their caloric needs.
  • Pay attention when they say they are hungry or full.
  • Don’t force children to clean their plates or bribe them with dessert for finishing their meal.
  • Never use food as a reward. Reward desired behavior with praise, extra attention, and privileges.
  • Don’t comfort your child with food. Use understanding words and hugs instead.
  • Help your child develop interests and skills that increase their success and pleasure so they will be less likely to turn to food for fulfillment.
  • Teach your children to cope with their emotions effectively so food won’t serve that purpose for them.
  • Don’t impose stringent food rules since this may lead to rebellious eating when your children are out of your control.
  • Avoid labeling some foods as “good” and others as “bad.” Instead, teach your children how to balance eating for nourishment with eating for enjoyment.
  • Involve children in shopping, meal planning, and preparation. This is a great opportunity to teach them about nutrition-and they’re more likely to try new foods they picked.
  • Sit down and eat together as a family. Mealtimes should be a pleasant time to reconnect with one another and model healthy eating and conversation.
  • Help your child build a lifetime exercise habit by reducing the amount of time your family spends in sedentary activities like TV and video games.
  • Plan fun activities that provide everyone with exercise, enjoyment, and time together.
  • Be a positive, encouraging role model for your family. When your children see you enjoying healthful foods and physical activity, they are more likely to do the same.

The development of lifetime healthy eating and physical activity habits begins in childhood  but it’s never too late to learn these skills.