I’m always amazed how little attention the “how” of eating gets. And by the how I mean how someone structures their meals, the level of attention they give while eating, and responding to internal cues of hunger and fullness.
I think the “what” of eating, what foods are healthy or unhealthy, is what everyone is used to hearing about. When I meet people, they always ask about what they should be eating. I tell them to start with the how instead. Do they sit for meals? Eat on the run? Are they being mindful of their choices?
Two recent studies show us, once again, that how we eat IS just as important as what we eat.
The chicken or the egg?
A study published in Public Health Nutrition set out to find what type of meal routines and practices were linked to healthier eating in college studies. Those that ate nutrient-rich diets were more likely to regularly prepare meals and eat breakfast and dinner. Unhealthy eating habits were linked to eating on the run, eating while engaging in other activities (like checking your phone) and purchasing food on campus.
The authors recommend that nutrition messages should include advice on how to structure meals in addition to dietary advice. Here’s the thing — preparing and sharing meals leads to nutritious eating, not the other way around. This is one thing that we parents have great control over — how our families eat. Structuring balanced meals at the table, making them enjoyable, and encouraging kids to listen to hunger and fullness is powerful stuff. Over time, the food provided becomes preferred.
How kids eat
Another study published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that kids only eat about 60% of what they put on their plate when their parents aren’t around. This is because, the researchers say, children are learning about what foods they like and how much it takes to get full. Another study with adults shows they eat over 90% of the food on their plate.
“Yet to a loving, but frustrated parent who wants their non-cooperating child to be a vegetable-eating member of the clean plate club, these lab results provide a powerful hidden value,” said lead researcher, Brian Wansink. “They show that a child who only eats half to two-thirds of the food they serve themselves isn’t being wasteful, belligerent, or disrespectful. They are just being normal children.”
The problem is the heightened focus on what can override the how. In short, parents may unknowingly compromise their child’s ability to self-regulate food intake, an important 21st-century skill, for nutrition.
I just think we’d all be better off we if we gave the how of eating just as much attention as the what. Sounds like a great New Year’s Resolution to me! What do you think?
All of Maryann’s book focus on the HOW of eating, feeding, and meal planning: