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Calling All Parents: Eat Your Rutabagas!

If parents load their own plates with leafy greens, juicy fruits, and colorful veggies, their children just may do the same, reports nutrition scientist Tanja V.E. Kral, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

“Parents serve as important role models for their children when it comes to healthy eating,” says Dr. Kral. “Watching a parent eat initially disliked or novel foods, such as vegetables, can enhance a child’s preference for those foods.”

Besides modeling healthy eating behaviors, parents also decide what foods to make available to their children in the home. Making vegetables easily accessible can provide children with opportunities to try new foods and to repeatedly taste them, an important factor in adding healthful new foods to children’s diets, explains Dr. Kral, who studies childhood obesity.

“It is important to know that children’s innate taste preferences can be modified through repeated experiences with food,” says Dr. Kral. “Studies have shown that multiple exposures to the taste of initially disliked or novel foods can significantly increase children’s liking and acceptance of those foods, including vegetables.”

At the same time, says Dr. Kral, children are born with a predisposition to prefer foods that are sweet and to reject foods that are sour and bitter, which may explain in part why children often prefer fruits over vegetables.

In her 2010 study, published in the journal “Obesity,” Dr. Kral was the first to test the effects of increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables served at a meal on young children’s intake. The findings demonstrate that when the portion size of a fruit side dish was increased, the children ate more of the fruit. The data also show that using portion size to promote children’s vegetable intake, however, is more challenging.

A diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables not only provides important nutrients for children, but also tends to be lower in energy density, notes Dr. Kral. Energy density refers to the amount of calories in a given portion of food. Foods that are high in energy density (such as chips and candy) pack many calories in a small weight, while a food that is low in energy density packs fewer calories for the same weight. Foods that are low in energy density and rich in nutrients, such as fruits, salads, soups, and cooked grains, allow children to eat satisfying portions without ingesting too many calories.

“Making a variety of healthful foods available in the home and during meals is a good strategy to promote good nutrition in children,” says Dr. Kral. “But whether or not children decide to eat the healthful foods will likely also depend on what other competing foods are being made available.”

Joy McIntyre | Newswise Science News
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