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Thinking Before Eating Leads Kids to Healthier Food Choices

Tween girl eating chips


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Key Takeaways

  • A study notes that when children take time to think before making food choices, they opt for healthier items.
  • Although educators and government agencies give children information on eating healthy, information is not enough.
  • Considering the mental and emotional aspects of making food choices also can be beneficial for children.

One in five children in the United States struggles with childhood obesity, which has largely been linked to diet. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that choosing foods low in nutrients and high in calories contributes to extra weight gain.

Meanwhile, a new study notes that impulsivity in food choices may also play a part. Published in Child Development, the study found that when children are not impulsive about their food, and instead make thoughtful decisions, they make healthier choices.

About the Study

Researchers based in the United Arab Emirates gathered 467 fifth- and sixth-graders to participate in the study. The selected students normally have a designated snack time during the school day. But parents were asked not to send a snack with their child on the day of the experiment.

Various food options were presented to each of the participants. The offerings ranged from items that were unhealthy options, like gummi bears, potato chips, and candy; to healthier selections, such as bananas, apples, and carrots. The children were told what foods were selected by a “remote peer”—an earlier participant in the study who was not in the room with the child.

The study then put the children into one of four groups. These groups included:

  • One set of students learned about the healthy options that their remote peer chose, then had to make their choices.
  • A set of kids had to analyze and explain the healthy food choices made by the remote peer, and then decide which of the snack choices they wanted to eat.
  • The third group of participants was advised of the unhealthy food options the remote peer chose, then had to choose their own snack.
  • The fourth group of kids had to analyze and explain the unhealthy food choices the remote peer made, then decide what to eat for their snack.

Ernesto Reuben, PhD

With kids, they’re not eating badly because of lack of information but mostly because of impulsivity. They knew so well how healthy each food was and still many of them didn’t want to choose them.

— Ernesto Reuben, PhD

Researchers found that the choices of the remote peer did not make a significant difference. Instead, when the child had to stop and think about the remote peer’s choices and then explain them, they made healthier choices.

“With kids they’re not eating badly because of lack of information but mostly because of the impulsivity. They knew so well how healthy each food was and still many of them didn’t want to choose them,” states Ernesto Reuben, PhD, professor of economics in the social science division of New York University Abu Dhabi, and one of the authors of the study.

The study provided insight into some of the reasoning behind the young person's food choices. For instance, there was a greater level of rationalized thinking among the older group, as sixth-graders tended to make healthier choices than fifth-graders.

There also were some limitations with the experiment. Dr. Reuben notes that while the study population was a diverse group, the children also tended to come from homes where parents are educated. This fact may account for the children’s knowledge of healthy eating habits.

Additionally, study results could also differ in younger-aged children without the same reasoning capacity. A social setting where there is greater peer pressure also may lead to the children making different choices. Still, the results did show that children understood the difference between healthy and unhealthy options.

Knowledge May Not Be Enough

Numerous organizations and government entities have spent time and effort to tell kids about the importance of eating healthy. The USDA devotes a section of the MyPlate site to kids, filled with tips for healthy eating, recipes, and fun activities.

Whole Kids Foundation offers healthy recipes for kids and explanations on why nutritious foods are important. And former First Lady Michelle Obama even instituted the Let’s Move campaign, aimed at helping children to exercise and implement nutritious food options into their diet.

The information is available, and children often understand which foods are healthy, and which are not. But that knowledge doesn't always translate into choices.

“If you see…what schools try to do, what governments try to do, to get kids to eat better, a lot of it is based on giving the kids information…. Kids know. It’s not enough,” Dr. Reuben states.

Healthier Choices, Healthier Kids

Providing children with details about the food they are eating may help increase their understanding and reasoning capacity regarding food choices. 

Yaffi Lvova, RDN

Discuss nutrition in a positive way so that kids have positive associations with food. Discuss what foods do for the body rather than to the body.

— Yaffi Lvova, RDN

Yaffi Lvova, RDN, notes that making beneficial food choices is not just about the food itself—it also involves considering the mental and emotional aspects of the food experience.

“Discuss nutrition in a positive way so that kids have positive associations with food: Discuss what foods do for the body rather than to the body,” recommends Lvova.

Parents, educators, and government officials want kids to make beneficial eating choices. There are other things parents can do to help encourage children to make healthier food choices. Here are some options.

  • Avoid concrete labels on food. Instead, allow children to discuss what food they are choosing to eat and why.
  • Give small children snacks every 2–3 hours and older children every 3–4 hours. This can help prevent them from making an impulsive choice due to hunger.
  • Eat meals together as a family. Allow kids to see the meal choices you are making.

The study also notes that encouraging kids to think more deliberately and less impulsively could be an impactful start.

What This Means For You

Healthy eating habits can start when children are young. The key is to make eating well a part of your lifestyle and to take the time to think about food choices. As the study notes, helping children to be less impulsive and put more thought into what they are eating can lead to healthier decisions.

 

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity causes & consequences. Updated March 19, 2021.

  2. Cobo‐Reyes R, Lacomba JA, Lagos F, Zenker C, Reuben E. Early adolescents’ food selection after evaluating the healthiness of remote peers’ food choices. Child Dev. Published online July 15, 2021. doi:10.1111/cdev.13631