Why We Can’t Get Our Kids to at Least Try Healthier Foods

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Research suggests some interesting reasons why it can be so hard to persuade our children to try healthier foods.

It’s no secret that most of the industrialized world struggles with obesity and a plethora of obesity related health problems. The problem is only getting worse. In fact, according to the World Health organization, obesity rates worldwide have doubled since 1980. For years, we’ve known that our obesity epidemic can be traced directly to the prevalence of starchy, salty, and highly processed food products and snacks in our diets. And because of the ready availability of of these products, far too many of us have become “junk food junkies.”

Our lifestyles often expose our children to unhealthy eating habits very early on. As anyone with young children knows all too well, it can be really difficult — even exasperating at times — to get them to forsake their chicken nuggets and french fries once in awhile and at least try something a bit healthier. Getting children to eat healthy has probably always been somewhat difficult. When I was a child (which, I’m sad to say, was quite some time ago), getting me or my siblings to eat leafy greens and vegetables that weren’t overcooked or covered with cheese sauce was sometimes quite a challenge. Over time we not only eventually tried but also came to like a variety of foods, many of which were fairly good for us, even though wholesomeness might not have been our primary motivation at first for trying them. So, being a psychologist, I’ve long wondered why my siblings and I didn’t become junk food junkies and why it seems so especially difficult these days for parents to get their children off the junk food treadmill, even for a little bit. Recent research is suggesting some interesting reasons why this difficulty exists.

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We’ve known for some time that foods high in simple starches and salt can be very addictive. In fact, some research suggests they can be as addictive as cocaine. According to one fairly recent study, these foods are not just addictive. They also appear to predispose you to avoid trying different foods. It seems our brains are programmed to seek out and sample various foods as part of a primal quest to find the starches and salts we crave. Along the way, we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised with the aromas and other flavors we encounter in the foods we try, and because they also give us the salt and starch we’re looking for, we grow to like other foods. We also come to appreciate the diversity of flavors available to us and the many novel routes there can be to satisfying our basic urges. But if we’re exposed too often and too early to food that’s already rich in simple starches and salt, we unfortunately feel overly satisfied on two fronts: we experience the “reward” of obtaining the very things we so deeply crave, and having found reliable sources of it, we lose any incentive to seek out different sources. This explains why it’s so difficult to get little Becky or Johnny to at least try something different once in awhile. When you actually do get them to make that rare effort and take that first little bite, if the food they’re trying doesn’t immediately signal their brains that the amount of starch and salt they’ve already become hooked on are present, they’re likely to quickly turn up their noses at it.

Addictions of any type are hard to overcome. Addiction is partly the result of the increasing tolerance we develop to something we’re exposed to over and over again. Once we’ve built up a measure of tolerance to a substance or group of substances, we experience a characteristic unpleasantness when deprived of those substances. This is the phenomenon of withdrawal, and in our withdrawal we inevitably experience a heightened craving for the very things we should stay away from but to which we’ve become unfortunately addicted. It’s a deadly, vicious cycle that, as any recovering addict will tell you, is very difficult to break.

There’s only one reliable solution to avoiding getting hooked on foods that are bad for you, and that’s to limit your exposure to them. It appears especially important to limit that exposure in the early years. The more often kids are exposed to highly processed, starch and salt rich foods, the more quickly they’re likely to become addicted. Once addicted, the harder it will be for them to break free of the cycle. So, the research is telling us we need to beware. Adopting a “what harm could just one little nugget possibly do?” attitude can actually be quite risky, especially when it comes to the little tots (and I don’t mean tater tots!). It appears to be best to limit children’s exposure to the things they’ll have enough problems resisting later in life. They might not be happy about it at the time, but the day will likely come — when they’ve successfully avoided succumbing to diet related health problems and have developed an appreciation for a variety of healthier food in the process — that they’ll feel grateful for having been spared the treadmill they easily could have been on for the rest of their lives.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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