Before we learn how to encourage our families to eat healthfully, it is important that we understand why this is so essential. There is a common misconception that it is acceptable for children to eat poorly during youth, because they can “catch up” by eating healthy in adulthood. This is not the case for several reasons: first, is it unlikely that children who develop unhealthy eating habits as children will suddenly have a taste for healthy plant-based foods. Research shows that food preference drives food choices (Story et al., 2002), so the food tastes acquired during childhood influence the food choices made as adolescents and adults. Second, an emerging area of study, epigenetics, is beginning to show that what children eat early on in life has a lasting impact on gene expression and chronic disease risk. Epigenetics is essentially the effect of outside factors on how our genes are expressed, or “turned on or off” (Lillycrop et al., 2012; Center for Epigenetics, 2013). The reality is that children are more likely to practice healthful habits in adulthood if they are learned at an early age.
“Plant foods” simply refers to foods that come from plants, and include fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and peas. What are the more immediate benefits of plant foods? Plant foods are naturally lower calories but abundant in phytochemicals, fiber, vitamins and minerals, making them nutrient-dense. The presence of these essential nutrients provides the rationale for focusing on whole, unrefined, plant-based foods. Next week, we will expand on each food component with information you can share with your families to help increase their motivation to consume plant foods.
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry the first dental examination for children should occur after the eruption of the first tooth and no later than 12 months of age. A dental exam should be repeated every six months or as indicated by the child’s risk for dental disease. We generally find that if children begin seeing their dentist early on, they not only improve their oral health, but they also develop a much more positive perception of the dental office compared to children who start going at a later age. In addition to the clinical exam, we also include the following assessments for pediatric patients:
“Eat more fruits and vegetables” is a phrase that most Americans are familiar with. What adults fail to remember, however, is that their children need plenty of fruits and vegetables for optimal growth and development. Consistent research shows that plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart disease (Campbell, 2012; AND, 2009). The execution of plant-based eating, especially when it comes to children, is where many people stumble.
Some youngsters actually do enjoy variety of plant-based foods and generally consume the recommended daily servings of key food groups. Unfortunately, many children snub their noses at fruits and vegetables, so parents face daily mealtime challenges.
As you know, the benefits of eating a plant-based diet beginning in early childhood are plentiful. Fruits and vegetables are lower in calories than many processed foods; they are abundant in phytochemicals, fiber, and vitamins and minerals. Over the next few weeks, we will discuss the benefits of eating a variety of plant-based foods starting in childhood, and will offer strategies to help your family embrace fruits and vegetables at every meal.