How to Inspire Healthy Kids: Talking to Older Kids About Nutrition

How to Inspire Healthy Kids: Talking to Older Kids About Nutrition

How can we inspire our kids to want to be healthy?  As parents we all too often want to impose our own ways of thinking on our children.  It’s only natural that we should want them to think the way we do, follow the same religion, and be good people – as long as their definition of “good people” is the same as ours!  Just like religion and how to treat other people, good nutrition really comes down to values.  How highly do we value health?  And how can we transmit that value to our children?

Of course there are many types of values regarding food.  If you, like me, believe nutrition is an extremely high priority, then it is one of your top values.  One way to help transmit this value to your child is to have a direct conversation about it with them.  Explain to them what your values are and why.  Ask them what they think and how highly they value health and nutrition.  Listen to what they have to say, respect it, and think about it deeply.

There is, of course, a chance your kids might not agree with you.  There are many responses I have heard as to why individuals might choose to continue eating unhealthy foods.  If you have a reasoned response that shows you truly listened to them, they are more likely to open up to a new viewpoint.  Here are some examples:

“If I give up XYZ food life will not be worth living!”  But is that really true?  If you suddenly became deathly allergic to it, would you still eat that food?  It is easy just to live for today even though you know that some day you will regret it.  But do you want to live your life with regret, even if that regret appears only in some years?

“Carpe diem! Live for today!” It’s great that you want to live in the moment – that’s something the greatest spiritual leaders of almost any religion aspire to.  But living in the moment doesn’t mean living recklessly or failing to think of how your actions will impact others in the future – and your future self is included.

“I’d rather die of rich foods than be hit by a bus.”  Would you really?  Death from rich foods may taste good but it often involves many years of slow and painful decay.  The length and quality of your life will steadily decrease.  How do you think this will feel?  How will this impact the people in your life who care about you?

“But XYZ tastes so good!”  You’re right, it can taste very good.  But lots of things that taste or feel good might not be the right thing to do.  Perhaps there is a way you can have XYZ in moderation.  Say, as a treat when you accomplish something or meet a big goal, or for special holidays only.

“Everything is okay in moderation.”  In theory, this sounds good, but it does not always work out that way.  Poison in moderation will still kill you and unhealthy food in moderation will still hurt your body, even if you can’t see it.  I know our bodies are designed to deal with a certain amount of toxins and bad things, but that does not mean we should deliberately give our bodies bad things, especially when there are so many more pollutants in our daily environments than ever before in history.

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die!  There’s no guarantee that if I eat healthy I won’t get sick.  I know John Doe and he ate really healthy and still got sick and died.”  I also know people who were really health-conscious who still got sick and even died.  Unfortunately, this is the fallacy of the personal story.  We cannot rely on outliers.  One, two, or even several stories are not sufficient reasons to do or not do something that flies in the face of statistical evidence.  If you eat healthy, it does not guarantee good health 100% but it dramatically increases your chances of having good health.  It’s sort of like crossing the street – we all know stories of someone who crossed without looking and made it safely to the other side; we all know stories of someone who looked both ways before crossing and still got hit; regardless, looking both ways before crossing the street will still dramatically decrease your chances of being hit.

“But I thought/there is evidence that/I have an article that says that XYZ is really healthy.”  Wow, it is great that you are looking into this stuff! I’m so impressed that you’re taking the time to listen to different opinions and investigate.  Why don’t you share your evidence with me and I’ll share mine with you?  We can look at the credentials of the people who did the study, their methods, when they were done, and who funded them.  This is a great opportunity for us to learn firsthand about the scientific method!

No matter what your child’s response, listen carefully and think calmly before you respond.  Values transmission is strongest when there is respect all the way around.

Is it right to try to transmit your values to your child?  Of course it is!  In fact, that’s part of our job as parents.  Parenting does involve a certain level of acceptance of our children and of course we will love them no matter what, but at the same time it is also our job to raise them in a way that they will be good people.  And that means being good to themselves and taking care of themselves.

I hope these pieces of advice will help you discuss nutrition, diet, and health with your children and teenagers.  If you talk to your kids about diet, please share in the comments the ways you have found work.

Derech HaTeva: A Case Study of How Food Impacts Kids’ Behavior

Derech HaTeva: A Case Study of How Food Impacts Kids’ Behavior

I’ve mentioned before how diet can impact behavior, and how it impacts behavior in children more than in adults.  Most of us have seen the comparison between a kid who eats lots of candy and one who’s eaten a heavy, meaty meal.  But it may not be so common to compare behavior between kids who eat healthy diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and those who eat fatty, sugary foods devoid of nutritional benefits.  Some teachers or others who work closely with diverse groups of students may have seen this firsthand, but even many people in these professions are dealing with fairly homogenous groups of kids.  Often, kids attending the same classes come from similar backgrounds both socioeconomically and educationally.  Thus it would not be uncommon to have a class where the vast majority of the students (if not all the students) are eating a similar diet.  And many teachers do not have the time or wherewithal to inspect each student’s food choices at school and at home.

As a mum, my exposure is primarily to my own children, and to their friends.  Of course, their friends (as they are still very young) are determined by my own friendships.  If I find another mum and strike up a friendship, it is likely that we have things in common, and one of those is highly likely to be an interest in healthy food and healthy kids’ diets.  Therefore, even as a mum who pays close attention to the food my children and their friends consume, I do not often have a strong and sustained basis for comparison.

Children at play in a fountain full of ballsOf course I do see other children at the parks, playgrounds, and play groups whose parents make radically different food choices.  But this is not a fair basis for comparison.  Behavioral patterns must be established over a period of time, so a “snapshot” of a child’s behavior at a given time is insufficient.  Food is, clearly, not the only impact on a child’s behavior.  We all have “good” days and “bad” days. We all have days when we’re feeling ill or when someone has hurt our feelings. We all have days when we get really lucky or when someone has given us a great compliment.  Children are no different. We cannot simply look at a child’s behavior on a given day and attribute it to their diet.  However, in the long run it is possible to establish patterns and causation, on an observational, if not scientific level.

To my mind, this is the problem with some scientific studies that show sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children.  I have read several studies that claim this and they all seem to have the same design flaw: they give children either a high dose of sugar drink or a sweet placebo. Then they observe their behavior. But this does not take into account long-term behavioral patterns in individual children.  A very retiring child who consumes sugar might exhibit hyperactivity but to a researcher who does not know that child’s normal behavioral patterns it may simply appear to be normal energetic behavior.  Also, these children may be more constrained in new environments. Or their parents may have previously admonished them to behave.  There are a plethora of factors not controlled for in these studies, which is why those of us who have or work with children all agree that kids who eat lots of sugary foods tend to behave in a more uncontrolled fashion, even though scientific studies might claim they don’t.

Derech-hateva-Camel-Trip-in-Desert-1024x768My husband saw the effects of food on children’s behavior firsthand a couple of years ago. He led a group of a dozen teenaged boys on a month-long trip called Derech HaTeva (“Nature’s Path”), hiking through mountains, forests, and deserts. All the kids were given the same rations, but they could trade amongst themselves and with the trip leaders. Thus, a boy could trade his ration of fruit for another boy’s ration of chocolate. He could trade his ration of whole grain oatmeal for another boy’s ration of white flour.

All the boys had to contribute to building and setting up camp, cooking, cleaning, and packing, in addition to hiking many hours a day, and doing learning sessions with group leaders. They rotated chores so that every boy spent some time during the trip doing everything, whether pleasant or unpleasant. My husband quickly noticed that certain boys would eat lots of certain foods, and would always trade for the same ones. He also noticed patterns of behavior that seemed to correlate – eerily – depending on what kind of diet each boy was eating.

The boys who ate lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains were always first up in the mornings. They set to their chores with enthusiasm and speed and were often finished with enough time to help others, or to go off on their own to meditate, pray, or relax. These boys were healthy, had lots of stamina on hikes, and did not exhibit any health issues, either mental or physical. On the other hand, the boys who ate lots of sugar, white flour, and other highly processed foods were tired and slow. They had to be prodded awake in the mornings and were surly and negative about the chores they had to do. Their energy was limited to the time period just after a meal, then they would crash and have no energy at all until the next meal.  Most of them were on medication of one kind or another.

After spending a month observing the same persistent behavior in these boys, my husband concluded that this was more than just coincidence: it was correlation.

Have you ever been in a situation where you have been able to observe children with very different nutritional backgrounds for an extended period of time? If so, what did you observe?