Preschool years key for teaching kids about healthy and unhealthy foods, say researchers

By Nathan Gray contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Unhealthy foods, Nutrition

Children as young as three are able to identify healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables, but are much worse at identifying 'unhealthy' foods, find the researchers.
Children as young as three are able to identify healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables, but are much worse at identifying 'unhealthy' foods, find the researchers.
Research demonstrating that three-to-five-year-olds have an awareness of which foods are healthy, and which foods are not, suggests preschoolers should receive education about food and nutrition, say researchers.

The study, published in Appetite​, aimed to document young children’s evaluation of food and drink as healthy, and to explore relationships with socioeconomic status, family eating habits, and children’s television viewing.

Led by Mimi Tatlow-Golden of University College Dublin, the research team gathered data from 172 children aged from three to five years on their ability to identify healthy and unhealthy foods and drinks.

"Our results demonstrate that a very high proportion of children aged 3–5 years identified the healthy nature of fruit, vegetables, potatoes and milk, even after removing responses where children showed a ‘yes’ bias,"​ said the research team.

"However, children’s understanding that one should eat little of high-fat or high-sugar unhealthy meal and snack items, such as chips (French fries), sweets (candy) and Coca-Cola, was substantially lower,"​ they said.

Tatlow-Golden and her colleagues added that their findings add support to a small body of research indicating that preschool children "can meaningfully identify healthy foods ... and the present study expands on this research with its finding that this applies across a socioeconomically diverse group."

"The findings of this study suggest that young children should receive education about unhealthy foods and the nutritional properties and health consequences of food from 4 years of age, as this is the time at which their understanding of unhealthy food begins to increase and at which they start to apply health-based explanations to healthy and unhealthy foods,"​ the team concluded.

Study details

A total of 172 children aged three to five from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland took part in the study.

Tatlow-Golden and her colleagues reported that the children had very high levels of ability to identify healthy foods as important for growth and health, but considerably less ability to reject unhealthy items, although knowledge of these increased significantly between ages 3 and 5.

"Awareness of which foods were healthy, and which foods were not, was not related to family socioeconomic status, parent or child home eating habits, or children’s television viewing,"​ the team noted. 

"Correct responses to these less healthy items increased with age, with the most robust difference found between the ages of 4 and 5 years,"​ they added. "However, it was notable that, at 5 years of age, children were still only able to identify just over half of unhealthy items as foods one should not eat much of, in order to be healthy, at levels not better than chance."

The researchers also highlighted the importance of examining young children’s response patterns, as many of the youngest showed a consistent ‘yes bias’; however, after excluding these responses, the significant findings remained, they said.

"These findings point to the importance of early childhood for learning about healthy and unhealthy qualities of food, and add to the evidence indicating that there is a particular gap in young children’s understanding about unhealthy foods,"​ concluded Tatlow-Golden and her colleagues.

Source: Appetite
Volume 71, 1 December 2013, Pages 163–170, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.08.007
"‘Big, strong and healthy’. Young children’s identification of food and drink that contribute to healthy growth"
Authors: Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Eilis Hennessy, Moira Dean, Lynsey Hollywood

Related topics: Science

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1 comment

Which truth to follow

Posted by Jackie,

Great idea to teach children from young age about nutrition!
The study distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy products, something the EC is not capable of yet.
A program for kids should be simple, but still scientifically sound and this last part is not so easy I think. It is not as simple as 2x2=4 and just about everything can be argued, as nutrition is based on personal convictions for many people. Vegetarian parents will not like it when their kid is taught that meat provides important nutrients without a clarification how to deal with not eating meat. And what about gluten-free parents? Dairy-free parents? Atkins or Paleo-parents? Fat-free parents? Just to name a few, but the list is much longer. To compare it with creationism vs evolution theory, this will probably be more complex discussions to deal with!
How can we help a pre-school or elementary school teacher to deal with those discussions and just teach 'the official recommendations' ignoring individual parents strong believes and lifestyles?

I would say that simple non-arguable ideas can be brought to children's mind:
- Eat 5-a-day veggies & fruit
- Water is an important drink
- Food allergies can be dangerous
- It is easier/faster to cook a potato than to create it into french fries (from the same starting point it is)

To sum up: I am completely in favor of more attention for nutrition in school and hope the right organizations are capable of working on creating such a program!

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