In the same way that loving care helps babies’ brains to grow strong and smart, the food and drink that parents provide shape their child’s emotional and physical health, behavior and intelligence.
So as they grow into toddlerhood and are handed their first burger while strapped into a car seat, the same child who learned about warmth and comfort and love at their mother’s breast is being taught other lasting lessons.
That meals don’t have to be eaten at the table, with family.
That they can be devoid of fruits or vegetables and include empty calories, sugary soda and loads of saturated fat.
That supersized fast food is a fun and friendly replacement for child-size portions of home cooking.
“Kids develop a strategy of the foods they like and dislike
early on in life,” said Jeffrey Hampl, assistant professor of nutrition at Arizona State University East. “By modeling good behavior early on, the kids may realize that they really do like salad.”
More often, however, kids are modeling their parents’ addiction to junk food and aversion to exercise from a very early age.
Today, the Tribune continues its yearlong monthly series on early-childhood development, focusing on how to keep infants, toddlers and preschoolers healthy in both mind and body.
A growing number of East Valley children are overweight or obese, making it more likely that they will be overweight as adults and setting the stage for a lifetime of costly health problems and social stigma.
Nationally, 10 percent to 15 percent of all children are considered obese, with the highest rates among Hispanic boys. Health consequences include Type 2 diabetes - the rates in children have more than quadrupled since 1990 - heart disease and high blood pressure.
Experts say the collective weight gain has its roots in several stubborn trends that are harmful to both the physical and mental health of children. Among them, supersized portions, mass marketing, sedentary lifestyles and a time-deprived society.
By the time children reach school, their health habits are well established, nutritionists say.
“They’re so bombarded by advertising. They know all the fast-food jingles,” said Sabina Kelly, who speaks to first- and second-graders as part of her social marketing work with the health department’s Office of Nutrition and Arizona Nutrition Network. “But there’s nothing that they remember about healthy stuff.”
Part of Kelly’s job is to work with Cooley Advertising to market healthy eating and exercise to low-income mothers and their children. Because the commercials are shown on local network TV, almost all Arizona families are getting the message.
“Eating fruits and vegetables is not sexy. So we use cool ads and promotions to get people at least interested in eating them,” she said.
The current campaign encourages families to switch from whole milk to 1 percent, dispelling the myth that 1 percent milk is watered down and less healthy.
This fall, children will be introduced to Bobby B. Well, an ultra-hip, buff cartoon kid with great hair and, naturally, a love of fruits, vegetables and exercise. Kelly said social marketers must play the same game as McDonald’s and Nintendo and target children, because focus groups show kids wield a lot of influence over what goes into the shopping cart.
What we miss at the family dinner table, however, goes far beyond fruits and vegetables.
In addition to encouraging healthier eating habits by focusing attention on what - and how much - you’re eating, the family meal has strong mental health benefits. Together, parents and their children solve little problems, share disappointments, revel in the day’s triumphs and build upon the family foundation.
Today, working parents often have trouble finding time to fix dinner, and the busy schedules of both parents and their kids don’t always allow it. But nutritionists and pediatricians encourage them to find a way, at least a few nights a week.
“Food is very social. We transmit a lot of values during mealtime,” said Jennifer Koslo, a dietitian and chronic disease specialist with the state Department of Health Services.
“It establishes the social environment in which your food is shared. You’re building those bonds with your family,” she said. “It’s so different than just going through the drive-through, tossing your kid a Happy Meal and going on to the next thing.”
Kristin Park’s family eats together every night because she has made it a priority. It also helps that she’s a stay-at-home mom, her husband makes it home from work in time and her kids aren’t old enough to be heavily involved in sports.
“My husband is out the door before the kids are awake. Those few minutes that we’re all sitting down eating is when he really gets to bond with them,” said Park, of Chandler.
Park’s children, ages 1, 6 and 7, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and stay active. She feeds the baby her vegetables first, slips grated carrots or zucchini into the spaghetti sauce and plans weekly meals so she can make just one, child-free trip to the grocery store.
“I think a lot of it is the example you set for your kids,” said Park, a long-distance runner married to an avid ice hockey player. “They watch you, and they get used to what you serve.”
The nutritional needs of children change dramatically in the first few years. For babies such as Madison Provencher, there’s no such thing as too much.
Madison had a rough start and spent her first week of life on a ventilator. Now 8 months old, she’s still trying to catch up.
“I give her as much as she can possibly eat until she stops,” said her mother, Terri. Madison’s favorites are green beans, summer squash and a bite or two of what mom’s eating.
Provencher gets parenting advice from Steve Selover of Healthy Families, a state-funded program for low-income, first-time mothers.
“I just didn’t think I could do it. I was scared and confused,” she said. “But Steve tells me I’m a great mother.”
Ironically, many overweight children live in families that are considered “food insecure,” which means a limited income causes them to run out of food, reduce the quality of food that is served or skip meals.
About 13 million U.S. children - and 13 percent of Arizona families - live in
households with limited or uncertain access to food. Roughly 30 percent of Hispanic children across the country live in food-insecure families, according to a Brandeis University study released last month.
Hungry children or those who have poor diets can suffer from a long list of health problems, and also are more likely to need mental health services and special education.
Caught up in the supersize mentality, parents at all income levels often give their child adult-size portions - twice as much as kids should be getting - and then expect them to clean their plates if they want dessert.
“Kids are really good at self-regulating how much they should be eating,” said Traci Luna, clinical dietitian in the Children’s Center at Desert Samaritan Medical Center in Mesa. “But they mimic mom and dad.”
“The kids just learn what they see, and they’ll end up making the same kind of bad decisions.”