Does Media Influence What Kids Eat?
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Media is a powerful force in the lives of children and teens, but does it shape their eating habits? After all, kids are bombarded with ads featuring foods high in fat, sugar, and sodium. Some of their favorite TV characters wolf down pizza, burgers, and fries. They follow influencers who claim they know the best way to slim down or bulk up.
Regardless of how your children get their media – television, internet, and/or influencers – is it influencing their food consumption?
It’s complicated, says Christy Gardner, M.S., RD, LD/N, a pediatric clinical dietitian with the University of Miami Health System. “There’s never a clear culprit.”
While she believes media can play a role among her patients, she sees it contributing more to stress, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and nutritional misinformation. Gardner works with children and teens with gastrointestinal problems, as well as those struggling with obesity, failure to thrive, and other nutrition-related issues.
Parents become influencers
“Even more influential than social media is parental behavior,” Gardner says. It’s more nuanced than extreme behaviors like overeating or deprivation.
“There’s a lot of relearning parents have to do,” Gardner says. If you were brought up with the “clean your plate” or “just one more bite” school of thought, Gardner urges you to rethink that approach with your own children.
“Younger kids do a really good job regulating their own body cues. Those types of messages teach them to ignore body cues.”
Many people grew up hearing that dessert was the reward at the end of a meal. That creates a potential pitfall, Gardner says. “Food is very psychological. Balance is important. We always want to eat fresh, whole foods, but a little junk food in the house is more balanced.”
She’s not suggesting parents stock up on empty calorie snacks; she just encourages them to avoid extremes.
Any food that’s “forbidden” tends to become more appealing.
Look up ingredients on food packages; if your kids are old enough, get them involved, too. And yes, whole grain, minimally processed bread are preferable to bread made of refined flour, but what if your child refuses to eat sandwiches made with “healthy” bread?
For now, give up the bread battle and buy white bread fortified with vitamins, Gardner says.
The downfall of diet culture
Though “diet” is part of her title, Gardner thinks “diet culture” is partly to blame for eating disorders.
“We’re seeing more dysregulated food behaviors in younger children and males. We need to become more body positive. If you hear questionable comments from your kids about body image or foods, that’s a conversation starter. Ask them what they’re looking at to find out what their interests are and guide them in a more balanced direction,” Gardner says.
Though media may feel like the enemy at times, parents can harness it to improve their family’s health. “There are social media accounts on how to create healthy meals and a body positive image in children that help parents set their children up for success.”
For parents of babies, toddlers, and younger kids, Gardner suggests the following Instagram accounts (all accounts were created by dietitians with a family-friendly focus):
@nutrichicos: A Miami-based dietitian and Latina mom.
@feedinglittles: A dietitian and feeding therapist team.
@healthy.mom.healthy.kids: Tips for feeding babies and kids.
@kidfriendly.meals: A registered dietitian, mom of two helping parents raise joyous eaters.
@mamaknowsnutrition: Realistic and low-stress nutrition for ages 1-10.
@kids.eat.in.color: Getting picky eaters to eat veggies and more.
Gardner avoids setting too many strict rules and limits around food, with one exception. “No tablets or phones at mealtime, even in restaurants when you’re waiting on a meal. Limit screens as a way of soothing.” It can be done. Just ask generations of parents who raised kids without the benefit (or detriment) of screen time.
If your child has a gastrointestinal condition that would benefit from seeing a physician and dietitian, call 305-243-3166.
Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the CDC. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.