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Nurturing Good Eating Habits

In How on 27 June 2013 at 8:00 pm

Today’s India Together article “The Obesity Epidemic: Are Parents to Blame?” raises the question of how parents can encourage good eating habits.

While the article raises useful points, it unfortunately retains a top-down approach of parents dictating to children or experts dictating to parents.  This will not work.    What will work is for parents to trust their children from birth.   They neither need to tell their children to eat nor tell them not to eat.

The article touches on the importance of breastfeeding, starting with exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, but does not recognize the full scope of breastfeeding to help nurture good eating habits.

The article quotes Dr.Vinod Jacob Cherian who says: “The child should be fed every three hours or so which works out to about eight feeds a day.”   He goes on to suggest that mothers who exceed this number may be “overfeeding” their babies, warning that “A baby will suckle even if it is not hungry.”

In fact, one should encourage mothers to trust their babies, not to limit breastfeeding according to the clock.  Mothers should trust their bodies, which naturally produce milk of the right quality and quantity according to signals from the baby.  Milk varies by time of day, frequency and length of feeding, each time adjusting the fat, protein, immunoglobulins and other components according to need.  See Volume and Frequency of Breastfeedings and Fat Content of Breast Milk Throughout the Day (Pediatrics Vol. 117 No. 3 March 1, 2006).

Not only is three hours a long interval compared to how soon breastmilk is digested, especially in a tiny stomach, but as important to remember is that breastfeeding is not about hunger alone.   Breastfeeding is the foundation of developing trust and communication, with one’s own body and with the rest of the world.  Breastfeeding is the way we learn how food tastes, and how it makes us feel.

Breastfeeding is a way to be close to one’s origins and gain confidence while exploring the wider world.  Comfort feeding is important for baby and the sucking also helps build supply ahead of growth spurts or to get through infections that may never manifest as full blown illnesses, because they are nipped in the bud thanks to breastfeeding. Mother may not know about these, but baby’s body knows what to do.

Breastfeeding is more than transfer of food from mother to baby. It is also the time when baby learns how to recognize and express her needs, how it feels to be hungry or full, what to do about it. Baby should decide when to breastfeed – guidance based on the clock or counting the feedings per day takes the decision away from the baby who is not counting and not looking at clocks.

When you learn to trust your baby to feed as needed, you will also trust your growing child to eat as needed. The child will in turn tune into the signals from his or her own body and trust himself or herself to respond accordingly.

There is *no* need to tell a child how much to eat. People who tell children:

“eat”
“eat quickly”
“eat more”
“good girl / good boy … eat”

are doing no service to the child’s health and growth. Children should be in charge of their own eating.  Parents should trust them.

The second way breastfeeding helps a child develop healthy eating habits is by serving as a safety net to ensure all nutritional needs are met while baby explores foods at a comfortable pace.   As long as one is breastfeeding, there is no need to ensure that baby eats “enough” solid foods, and baby can sometimes take more or less, assured of getting the rest through mother’s milk.  Baby can decide how much is enough.

During these early years when babies and children are learning about the wide world of food beyond mother’s milk, it is important that they get the food in its own flavour and texture rather than powdered, salted, sugared and fried versions of fruits, vegetables and grains.   There is no need to introduce added sugar to young children.  Children can eat whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, prepared at home.

Providing junk food may satisfy the parent’s desire to see kids eat more but it will mess with their health and also their ability to appreciate the actual taste of food. Young children who are not exposed to junk food do not ask for junk food.   Older children with a firm foundation of real food early in life can understand that sweets and savories have their place and can moderate their intake without parental restriction.

In short, support food freedom by ensuring that all available food is acceptable food.  Keep junk food out of the house for the first few years of a child’s life so that they can get familiar with a variety of real food.  As parents, get in the habit of trusting your kids, without worrying about how much they are eating, or coaxing them to eat (more).  If all the food in the house is healthy then children are free to decide what to eat when and develop an awareness of how their body responds to vegetables, fruits, grains, dal, nuts, etc.

Processed foods rig the game by providing concentrated loads of fat, sugar and salt with very little fiber.   One who thinks that this is how food is supposed to taste and feel will be less patient with foods that require more chewing and whose flavors and textures are more diverse.

Further reading on nurturing good eating habits:
Introducing Foods
How Children Learn to Eat
My Breastfeeding Journey
Weaning

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  1. On this part ” Providing junk food may satisfy the parent’s desire to see kids eat more but it will mess with their health and also their ability to appreciate the actual taste of food. Young children who are not exposed to junk food do not ask for junk food. Older children with a firm foundation of real food early in life can understand that sweets and savories have their place and can moderate their intake without parental restriction.”

    I can say that , I am not sure we did what we set out to do. What we set out to do was make sure DD developed good eating habits. Which was followed well into her 2nd yr of life. But with exposure to junk food, either given by relatives or friends or complete strangers, DD has developed a real taste for junk. And with DD going to school which hands out biscuits every other day as a “nutritious” snack, I am at a loss. She eats healthy food at home, but when we are outside she associates it with eating only junk and gets quite upset when we do not want her to have any. Any creative ideas from all parents, what could I do to reintroduce healthy eating to my DD? How does one react when someone offers your child something you think is unhealthy?

    Like

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