Childhood Exposure to Good Food Inspires Healthy Eating Later in Life

A study finds college kids like foods they were served as children—even if they hated them at the time.
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(Photo: Lisa S./Shutterstock)

(Photo: Lisa S./Shutterstock)

Why do some people enjoy healthy foods, while others turn their noses up at them? Given the obesity epidemic, it's an important question, and aside from a biologically based preference for sweet tastes, not well-understood.

Newly published research suggests one factor is the types of foods that graced your childhood dinner table. It seems that with healthy eating, as with so much else, the example set by one's parents is vitally important.

Specifically, a study finds a strong relationship between the foods college students enjoy and the dishes that were served when they were growing up. Importantly, it didn't matter if they hated, say, broccoli when they were children; the fact they were exposed to it was key to their later food preferences.

"Frequent exposure to foods in childhood could be a simple and effective way for parents and caregivers to instill healthy eating habits in children."

"Parental encouragement and modeling was positively related to current liking, even for foods that were disliked in childhood," writes an Arizona State University research team led by Devina Wadhera. "Frequent exposure to foods in childhood could be a simple and effective way for parents and caregivers to instill healthy eating habits in children."

In the journal Appetite, Wadhera and her colleagues describe a study featuring 670 university students. In three waves from 2009 to 2011, they were presented with a list of 122 food items and asked about their history with each.

They indicated whether they currently enjoyed the food; whether they liked it as a child; and whether their parents encouraged, discouraged, or forced them to eat it (or, conversely, were indifferent to whether they ate it or not). In addition, 128 of the participants' parents filled out a complementary survey, designed to confirm that the students' memories were accurate.

"The perceived recollection of frequent consumption of foods in childhood was significantly related to current liking for the vast majority of the foods, including nutritious foods such as vegetables," the researchers write. "Similarly, parental encouragement and modeling was positively related to current liking, even for foods that were disliked in childhood."

The equation also worked in the opposite direction. 

"Lack of consumption of foods in childhood led to current disliking," Wadhera and her colleagues write. "This was beneficial for a variety of unhealthy foods, such as Twinkies, cream-filled donuts, fast-food burgers, onion rings, and bacon, in that these foods were never eaten in childhood and were, on average, currently disliked. However, the same effect was seen with meats, fruits, and vegetables."

The researchers are quick to add an important caveat: The students, as a rule, did not like foods parents forced them to eat. In addition, participants who were restricted from consuming certain foods as children "showed greater liking and wanting to eat those foods" as college students.

Specifically, students "reported liking French fries, popsicles, chocolate chip cookies, M&Ms, brownies, milk shakes, cinnamon rolls, cheese pizza, and ice cream when they believed those foods were forbidden to them as children."

So coercion—in the form of forcing kids to eat certain foods, or forbidding them from even occasionally eating others—ultimately backfires. Gentle nudges in the direction of healthy eating, along with setting a good example, is the more productive path.

So, parents, if your kids are stubbornly resistant to your pleas that they eat their asparagus, don't despair. Even if the message doesn't seem to be getting through, you may be planting the seeds for a lifetime of healthy eating.

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