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When Healthy Met Junky

Kids navigate a semantic minefield where products with healthy-sounding ingredients are perceived as good for you, even if they're not.
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It's tough being a 4-year-old, trying to figure out what foods are healthy. Take orange soda. It's got that fruity aspect, so it must be good for you, right? Same goes for potato chips. Or chicken nuggets. All have beneficial components, so they must be essentials of a good-for-you diet.

Well, not exactly.

But that's the way some children evaluate food choices, according to a series of studies run by Simone Nguyen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

"When children are presented with foods that have multiple ingredients, non-natural man-made foods, children find it especially challenging to determine if a food is healthy or junky," Nguyen said.

In Nuguyen's basic research, she showed groups of 3-, 4- and 7-year-olds pictures of 70 different foods, ranging from apples and broccoli to cookies and potato chips. The children were asked to identify each as "healthy" or "junky." At the end of the test, each child was asked to defend their classification.

The results were, if nothing else, eye-opening. Many children had a hard time categorizing unhealthy foods, particularly those with a vegetable component, such as potato chips and French fries. This confusion also affected their assessment of breakfast foods like doughnuts and certain beverages, particularly of the carbonated variety.

And although most children knew that foods such as spinach and carrots were healthy for them, this did not necessarily mean it's what they wanted to eat.

"There's a difference between understanding what's healthy vs. our notion of what tastes good," Nguyen said. "For children, a large challenge is to overcome their natural inclination to go for sweets, things that taste good, things that are high in sodium and fat. I think children come into the world with personal biases that are sort of programmed for certain types of expectations regarding food."

Nguyen notes, for example, that people are born with a pre-disposition to like sweets, and that studies have been done showing that if sweetener is injected into the amniotic fluid of a pregnant woman, the fetus will try to ingest the sugary stuff.
Which helps explain, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, why between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese. But pre-disposition to eat junk is only a small part of the problem. Nguyen believes a big factor is where children are getting their information about food, and how they are taught healthy eating habits.

"TV is a huge source of information," she said, "but also peers, parents and teachers. What you see between the ages of 3 and 7, though, is children's ability to discern whether someone is being honest or not. Commercials or an ad could be ill-motivated, trying to convince children to want sugary cereals, but it's not until about age 7 where you see kids beginning to realize, 'Wait a second, it could be they want me to eat tons of this, regardless of the health consequences.'"

Yet just because kids start to develop a B.S. detector still doesn't mean they make the right food choices. And here, Nguyen said, is where a solid educational grounding in healthy eating is key.

"The way information is taught to children is really important," she said. "It's not just a matter of giving them random facts about health, nutrition and exercise but providing it in a coherent and related way, giving children the big picture."

Instead of saying, "Here's a carrot. Eat it. It's good for you," an approach Nguyen refers to as "isolated pieces of information," she suggests a "thematic" method. She said to start off by saying, "'Today, we're going to talk about fruits and vegetables, here's why they're good for you. These are examples of fruits and vegetables, and here's how each one of them will affect your body.' Just have a theme so that children have a picture in their minds on how all this information hangs together. If you provide them with a peg to hang all this information on, they'll not only have that information, they'll hopefully use it."

And not wind up thinking a can of Pringle's is a healthy food choice.

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