The struggle to get kids to eat veggies is not a new one. If the old classic “Ants on a Log” is any indication, history leaves behind generations of moms who have gotten creative with vegetable presentation in hopes of making it fun.
If they’re eating the good stuff, they’ll be less likely to fill their tummies with the bad stuff, right? Well, according to new research, no — not at all.
Researchers found that preschoolers who ate fruits and vegetables and drank milk many times every day were just as likely to eat foods high in sugar, salt, and fat as those who rarely ate healthy foods. The research team was led by Sarah Anderson, associate professor of epidemiology at The Ohio State University.
“We assumed that children who ate a lot of healthy foods would also be children who did not eat a lot of unhealthy foods,” Anderson said. “I just thought that was the way the world was and it turned out not to be the case.”
Interviewers asked parents or guardians from a low-income neighborhood about the diets of their preschool-aged children. Anderson and her team were surprised to find that the conventional assumption — the 'more carrots equals less candy' assumption — was not well tested and did not hold up to the study.
There was no evidence that kids who frequently ate fruits and vegetables and drank milk were any less likely to partake in the unhealthy foods.
Emphasis on choice
The surprising discovery could lead to the reframing of conversations on how to improve children’s diets and lower rates of childhood obesity, the researchers said.
Policymakers might want to consider emphasizing the downsides of unhealthy choices instead of assuming the presence of healthy foods — a strategically placed farmer’s market, for instance — automatically limits a child’s junk food intake.
“There has been a kind of assumption there that if you encourage people to adopt healthy eating that it naturally leads to a decline in unhealthy eating,” said co-author Phyllis Pirie, professor of health behavior and health promotion at Ohio State. “Efforts to lower childhood obesity rates often focus on adding ‘good’ foods, rather than on avoiding ‘bad foods.’”
Good doesn’t replace bad
Anderson compared the discovery to previous research showing that a person can at once be both very active and highly sedentary. Running marathons on the weekend doesn’t mean that you don’t sit in a desk chair for most of the work week.
This research, adds Anderson, doesn’t mean parents and policymakers should give up efforts to increase intake of more-nutritious foods. But it does challenge the idea that good automatically replaces bad.
A larger-scale study looking at how this plays out in a more diverse group of children in the U.S. is underway.