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.