This is What 3-Year-Olds Said About Nutrition and Health

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Is it possible for kids to teach us a thing or two about nutrition and health?

I have a bunch of kids in my life who will be turning 4 years old in the next few weeks. I am lucky to be in contact with such intuitive and inspirational kids. They amaze me and their parents every day, whilst providing a very healthy dose of frustration along the way. I couldn’t help but share their amazing awareness and knowledge, so I thought I would have them interviewed. What they said was interesting, so what did they say about all things nutrition and health? Get ready to learn something from these 3-year-olds!

Twelve 3-year-old kids from Cairns answered 3 questions. I had the child’s parent ask them 3 questions at appropriate times without leading them to an answer they thought they should say. I also encouraged them to ask for more information by asking “What do you mean by that?” to help the conversation flow.

Question 1 – Why do you eat?

As a dietitian, I was most interested in understanding what drives people to eat, and in particular, at their tender age of almost 4, because I see so many adults who have lost touch with the ‘how’ to eat and wanted to see if there was any confusion occurring or potentially could occur around this age.

Sixty-seven percent of the kids said they eat for intuitive reasons (hungry, needing energy, pleasure). These responses were exciting for me to hear as I see a lot of people who have lost this connection with their internal body cues, which affects their ability to find nourishment and pleasure from food. Eighteen percent of the participants ate because of the benefit they knew they were getting from eating (grow) and another 18% said they ate to be healthy.

I noted that some kids were aware of the word ‘health’ and ‘healthy’ from hearing it either from their parent or via other means within our society.

My favourite answer in response to “Why do you eat?”, was

“Because I like eating and because I read lots and lots of books, so then I have (hunger strikes) to eat.”

Question 2 – What do you do to stay healthy?

This question led me to understand how much knowledge the children had about nutrition and health. It was surprising to me how much these kids already knew. Their top 3 ways to stay healthy were by eating, eating particularly food/drink (eat chocolate biscuits, broccoli, carrot, pasta, vegetables and drink water and milk) and keeping active. Other important ways to stay healthy included cleaning teeth, resting and doing the thing they enjoyed (riding bike, exercise, play, read books).

I loved how the kids could already appreciate that there are many ways to care for themselves, and many involved doing things they enjoyed. I can see if they were happy, they were more interested in caring for themselves. My favourite responses, which are aligned with my nutrition philosophy, ie. enjoy all foods in moderation (or intuitively and mindfully), doing the things that matter to you and considering the bigger picture of nutrition and (life)….

“I run, walk, ride my bike, eat vegies and sometimes just have a rest.” and “Do drawing and writing and dance to music.”

What stood out to me when this question was asked was that a small proportion of the kids labelled certain food as ‘healthy’ which referred to vegetables. I recommend that we as parents should watch the language we use around food, particularly using the word ‘healthy’. I think a better word to use is ‘nutritious’, as it implies that food is packed with lots of essential nutrients, which I believe this is what the kids meant. On the flip side, if the word ‘healthy’ is used, then naturally we think of the opposite word – ‘unhealthy’. When this word is used to describe food, this is where food starts to be viewed as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Because if something is viewed as unhealthy, then really this must be ‘bad’. Right? Nope not at all, but this is what most people think. All foods CAN be enjoyed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

The other thing I think we should be mindful of is some children’s desire to grow up and try to achieve/obtain ‘big muscles’ as this is something society tells us we should be doing to be ‘healthy’. It is not always possible to get ‘big’ muscles due to genetic reasons and the pursuit of getting big muscles can become problematic as this becomes the primary focus which can lead to disordered eating and lifestyle behaviours. Big muscles alone, just like weight or body size or shape alone, does not equal health.

I’m just looking into the future for these young ones and highlighting the problems that I see in my clients today as adults. I’m sure these children and/or their parents do not really think much of the word or concept I have just raised, but in certain situations and personality types, the above can be potentially damaging in terms of the relationship we have with food, our bodies and other people.

Question 3 – What is health?

This was a hard question for the kids to answer. Thirty percent of the kids answered that they did not know. Of this 30%, 57% provided an answer once the question was asked a different way or they had time to think about it. One parent stated, “Hmm, don’t think I use the actual word ‘healthy’ enough, I usually just explain in a way she will understand, using actual examples!” Another parent said, “I don’t really think he knows what health means, but hears it being used around other things he can relate to such as strong muscles and not getting sick I guess.” An observation from one of the parents related to the children’s ability to answer this question. If the question was asked alone without following the previous two questions, then the answers may have been in relation to understanding health is “different to being sick”. All great and interesting points raised by these parents.

The children’s responses included:

“Don’t know but I’m healthy. Daddy wasn’t healthy when he was sick (This child’s father became unwell for a significant amount of time. Thankfully he’s recovered now!).

“Soft poo’s are healthy” (This answer signified the toileting issues which have resulted from the refusal to eat fruit and vegetables).

“Eating healthy and drinking healthy and living healthy.”

“Health is good and need to eat”.

I think the kids did well considering they thought they didn’t know what health is.  I knew this question was difficult for the kids, as adults also find it difficult to answer. Adults don’t often agree on a definition. I believe our understanding of health is influenced by our age, experiences and education. So how can we come up with the same answer?

***

I’d like to thank all the kids and parents that featured in this blog post!! I definitely learnt a lot from hearing the kids responses. Once again, even though I was expecting insightful responses, I was blown away at how intuitive and inspiring these kids are.

To join a collection of mums all striving to support their children to develop a positive relationship with food and their body, join us in the Nutrition Empowered Mums Facebook Group.

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