Obesity is one of the biggest pandemics and health crises that we face today. Unhealthy eating habits, an unbalanced diet, and lack of physical activity can cause overweight and obesity which leads to various illnesses like stroke, heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, certain types of cancers, and osteoporosis.
Globally, 39% of the world's population is overweight or obese, and in developed countries, it's worse, with 60% of the population affected.
In this blog, we discuss how developing healthy habits in children from an early age can be the solution to this problem.
Nutrition and the Brain
Nutrition plays a vital role in brain function and development. The brain requires a continuous supply of energy in the form of glucose, which is obtained from carbohydrates in the diet. A diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provides the brain with essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support cognitive function and protect against oxidative stress.
Studies have shown that a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars can impair brain function, leading to cognitive decline and an increased risk of developing neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease. In contrast, diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and nuts, have been associated with improved cognitive function and a reduced risk of developing depression and anxiety.
In addition to the macronutrients and micronutrients obtained from the diet, the gut microbiome also plays a crucial role in brain function. The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional communication pathway between the gut microbiota and the central nervous system, which regulates mood, behavior, and cognition. A healthy gut microbiome, supported by a diverse diet rich in fiber and probiotics, can promote optimal brain function and protect against neurological disorders.
The brain also has a significant role in the development of our eating habits. Our subcortical brain develops a strong emotional pull to certain types of food as we associate the foods we eat with our emotions. Foods are linked to emotions such as belonging, pleasure, and love. These are fundamental human emotions that are linked to the foods that we are used to eating over the years. This strong emotional pull to our food is the reason why changing our eating habits as adults is difficult.
Furthermore, our brain stem creates a self-defense mechanism that sends alarm bells every time we change our diets, making dieting particularly difficult. This mechanism causes irritation when we start a diet, making it hard for adults to change their eating habits.
Nutrition and Child Development
Numerous studies have shown that a healthy diet is critical for optimal child development. Proper nutrition during the early years of life can support physical growth, cognitive development, and immune function, laying the foundation for lifelong health and wellbeing.
Several studies have found corroborating evidence that children who consumed a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains had higher executive functioning compared to those who consumed a diet high in processed foods and sugar. Similarly, another study found that intake of unhealthy foods and snacks like sweets was associated with lower academic achievement. These results suggest a strong link between foods consumed and cognitive and academic achievement, which has far-reaching implications on later child development. Moreover, meta-analyses examining the link between child development and nutrition interventions have also found positive effect sizes between the two.
Furthermore, a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats has long been known to improve health outcomes in both adults and children. For instance, one study found that the Mediterranean diet significantly decreased measures of childhood obesity and increased consumption of healthy fatty acids like Omega-3s and other vital minerals such as zinc and selenium. In addition, studies have shown that this diet is associated with improved cognitive function and attention compared to those who consumed a typical Western-style diet high in processed foods, sugar, and saturated fat. Moreover, meta-analyses examining the link between child development and nutrition interventions have also found positive effect sizes between the two.
In addition to improving cognitive function, a healthy diet can also support physical growth and development. Proper nutrition during the early years of life can prevent stunting, a condition where children are shorter than expected for their age, and support the development of strong bones and muscles.
Healthy Eating Habits
One solution to the obesity pandemic is to develop healthy habits in children. Teaching children healthy eating habits from a young age ensures that these habits last a lifetime. Parents can start by avoiding negative associations with healthy foods. Instead of bribing children to eat vegetables or using sweets as a reward, parents can create positive associations. Children want to have fun, so parents should make healthy eating fun.
There are several ways parents can make healthy eating fun for their children. For example, parents can call vegetables funny names and tell stories about them. Rather than serving steamed broccoli and carrots, parents can describe the carrots as going on an adventure in a forest of mini broccoli trees. Involving children in the decision of what's for dinner can also make healthy eating more enjoyable. When children get involved in the preparation of food, they are more likely to try new things and eat what's on the dining room table.
Cooking and eating together as a family is also essential. Research shows that there is a relationship between home-cooked meals eaten as a family and good weight within children. Creating a positive relationship within the dining room table, with good healthy food and family time, can have a significant impact on a child's eating habits.
Finally, making food attractive can also help children develop healthy eating habits. Parents can get creative with their food presentation, such as making vegetable trains or funny clown faces with big red tomato noses. Being a little bit of a food artist at home can make healthy eating fun and enjoyable.
Tips for parents and educators:
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Chávez-Servín, J. L., de la Torre-Carbot, K., Ronquillo González, D., Aguilera Barreiro, M. D. L. Á., & Ojeda Navarro, L. R. (2022). Relationship between Emotional Eating, Consumption of Hyperpalatable Energy-Dense Foods, and Indicators of Nutritional Status: A Systematic Review. Journal of Obesity, 2022.
Cohen, J. F., Gorski, M. T., Gruber, S. A., Kurdziel, L. B. F., & Rimm, E. B. (2016). The effect of healthy dietary consumption on executive cognitive functioning in children and adolescents: a systematic review. British Journal of Nutrition, 116(6), 989-1000.
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Velázquez-López, L., Santiago-Díaz, G., Nava-Hernández, J., Muñoz-Torres, A. V., Medina-Bravo, P., & Torres-Tamayo, M. (2014). Mediterranean-style diet reduces metabolic syndrome components in obese children and adolescents with obesity. BMC pediatrics, 14(1), 1-10.
Ventura, A. K., & Birch, L. L. (2008). Does parenting affect children's eating and weight status?. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 5(1), 1-12.