Most West Indians could probably recall a time when their parents warned them to make sure they ate all their food or face punishment or bribed them with a beverage or dessert if they cleared their plates.
While the intentions of their parents may have come from a good place, those actions are harmful because they teach children to have the wrong ideas about food which could lead to poor eating habits and health issues such as obesity.
Christeena Johnson-Harvey, a Registered Dietitian at the Jamaica-based organizationCaribbean Tots to Teens, said children should never be forced to clean their plates or eat when they are not hungry.
She said bribing children only reinforces the idea that the actual meal is not something they should want to eat.
“We are telling them you can’t eat that until you eat this because it is a reward. If the meal is a vegetable then they might say something is wrong with that vegetable, it is a punishment, I need to be rewarded to eat this thing,” she explained.
Caribbean Tots to Teens is Jamaica’s first wellness center for children and adolescents with a mission to optimize youth development and family life. Johnson-Harvey works with teens and adolescents providing nutrition counseling and education.
Much of her philosophy as it relates to feeding children comes from respected dietitian and therapist, Ellyn Satter which includes the Satter Theory of Division of Responsibility in Feeding.
Harvey believes that all children are born to be intuitive eaters and can successfully self-regulate their own food intake in order to nourish their bodies (which includes listening to their hunger cues) with the guidance and positive role modeling of their parents. She is certain that good habits form over time and that children can learn to accept new foods with continued exposure and patience.
Christeena Johnson Harvey
Speaking about rising obesity rates in children and factors that lead to poor nutrition, she said it starts at home.
“If as adults we are not making the healthier choices in terms of diet and lifestyle, it is likely that our children will be participating in the same thing, they will think this is normal and there is no problem if I do the same. It is difficult to talk to them and say do the opposite, it seems hypocritical, so they need that support,” she said.
Another major factor, she said, is the increasing availability and accessibility of ultra-processed foods that are energy-based and nutrient-poor.
“For the amount that you eat you get a lot of energy but not a lot of variety and density in nutrients. And it is those types of food that children are eating more of but decreasing their intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes and water. Just realizing that we are not getting much variety in our diet is helpful because that means we are not cooking for ourselves far less than our children,” she explained,
She said biological factors and genetics also play a role in a child’s health.
Johnson-Harvey advised that if parents have concerns with their children’s growth, they should take them to a doctor who would advise on the next steps if an issue is detected.
At home, she said, addressing weight concerns in children means building lifelong habits instead of putting your child on a diet. Getting the whole family involved to support the child is important.
“Addressing weight concerns in children means you have to build lifelong habits not dieting. They need to see an example set at home and not just with parents but the siblings. The entire family needs to be involved. The child may experience bullying or other forms of discrimination outside of the home so they shouldn’t expect that at home. I find that children who have the support, who have parents on board with a positive outlook, are more likely to be more successful with the changes and resilient in facing problems or if setbacks occur they can solve problem and achieve even more success,” she said.
Asked how parents can instill good eating habits in their children and the ideal age to do so, Johnson-Harvey said the process begins from as early as six months old when babies are introduced to solids.
“You start off with some soft mashed fruit or vegetable, meat, fish and ground provisions but so many times we think we can give them the cereal and the porridge alone and we limit the variety. But they need to learn that it is normal to eat a variety of food not just white food. It is important for them to see the different colors and to try the different textures. It is important for them to learn it is okay to eat vegetables and it is a normal part of the meal,” she advised.
“There are other ways to incorporate foods into our diets. Sometimes we have to step back and look at what we ate for the week, try to think about it that way, did we eat any vegetables, did we eat any yellow vegetables, did we eat any red vegetables? If we don’t do that when they are finally introduced to it it won’t be weird. All of a sudden there is this green thing on my plate what do I do with it? Parents need to be the role model.”
She said proper eating habits start even when babies are breastfeeding or on the bottle.
She said: “They are learning important eating skills as well because when they are full they turn their head away and that means they don’t want anymore but if you force the bottle in their mouth they are learning not to trust their hunger and fullness cues They are trying to please you. They need to learn eating when hungry is fine and when they are full to stop.”