Psychologist Leann L. Birch, PhD, served on an Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee that issued a September report calling for changes to counter soaring rates of childhood obesity. In particular, she provided a psychological understanding of how children develop tastes for healthy foods.
"I tried to bring the message that children learn what to eat, so we must look at the context in which children eat to understand what they are learning," says Birch, a distinguished professor of human development and nutritional sciences in Penn State University's department of human development and family studies.
Birch joined 18 other IOM-appointed experts in children's health, nutrition and fitness in early 2003 to create an obesity-prevention plan in response to a congressional request. The institute selected Birch for her research expertise on how children develop food preferences and how their environments affect their nutrition.
For example, she notes, children readily like foods presented over time in positive contexts--such as a snack for good behavior--but dislike those vegetables they must finish before dessert. "They aren't born hating spinach," she says. "So the question is: How does this happen and, more importantly, how can we create a context to help children learn to like nutritious foods?"
One way, Birch says, is for parents to create a positive dinner-table atmosphere by repeatedly offering nutritious options but not pressuring children. Children can come to dislike foods they are pressured to eat, she explains. "Children also need repeated opportunities to explore and try new foods," says Birch. "Repetition allows children to learn to accept a range of foods that they need to support health."
Among the report's specific recommendations:
Schools should implement nutritional standards for foods served on school grounds--including those from vending machines--and offer students 30 minutes of daily exercise.
The food, beverage and entertainment industries should develop voluntary guidelines to restrict youth-driven advertisements that conflict with principles of healthy eating and physical activity.
The Federal Trade Commission should have congressional authority to monitor the industries' adherence to these guidelines.
Parents should limit children's daily television, video game and computer use to fewer than two hours.
Parents should promote healthy eating by repeatedly introducing their young children to a variety of healthy foods.
State and local governments should support revised zoning ordinances to enhance sidewalks, bike paths and parks.
The report is available at www.iom.edu.