You’ve heard all the reports. Our kids are overweight. Type 2 Diabetes is on the rise. America’s children are facing a crisis. In response, experts repeatedly assert the importance of good nutrition. It’s as if everyone thinks parents only need to know more about which foods to provide — 1/2 cup of cottage cheese, or a serving of broccoli — and presto, our kids will all be healthy eaters. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, never before has a nation known so much about nutrition and yet eaten so poorly.
There is a solution. We don’t need to learn more about nutrition; we need to learn how to implement what we already know.
Nutrition isn’t the answer because eating right isn’t really about food, it’s about behavior — what, when, why and how much someone chooses to eat. Since nutrition only partially shapes those choices, especially for children, the key to success can never be found by focusing only on food. Rather, we must shape how our children behave in relation to food. This we accomplish by deliberately and consciously fostering their habits.
Paradoxically, nutrition is not the most effective tool for teaching good eating habits. In fact, even though nutrition is the science of nourishing our bodies, the nutrition message — that parents need to get the right nutrients into their kids and the consequences for failing are enormous — often leads parents astray. For instance, it encourages parents to give their children items such as chocolate milk because they are considered healthy — even schools do it — but this practice teaches kids an appreciation for chocolate, not for milk. Indeed, each chocolate milk makes regular milk a harder sell. The same is true for sweetened, whole grain cereals, flavored yogurts (which typically derive as much as 50% of their calories from added sugars) and juice — all “healthy” foods that teach our kids to like, even crave, sugar. When we consider how regularly consuming sweet tasting foods impacts habits, is it any wonder that diabetes and other food-related health problems are on the rise?
Unfortunately, pressure to get quality nutrients into our children does more than encourage parents to compromise on the foods we give our kids. It also leads many parents to believe that, when it comes to food, getting the right nutrients into their children is the full extent of their job. It is this narrow definition of their role that hampers parents the most because it turns their attention away from the central parental responsibility regarding food: teaching their children how to eat right. But children need to be taught how to eat, just as they need to be taught other things, like good hygiene and manners. There are concrete skills they need to develop. That’s why we have to stop just feeding our kids; we have to teach them to eat right as well.