Encouraging a Culture of Health for Your Kids

Everyday Ways to Make Healthy Living the Norm

mother and child exercising together
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We all know the expression, 'do as I say, not as I do.' But that admonition rarely works, for a number of reasons. If you can't follow your own advice, why should anyone else? And if people respect you, they will want to do as you do. Finally, what you say is really just theory until you show that it translates to practice.

The many lifestyle medicine experts in the True Health Initiative don't just dispense good advice, they apply it in their own lives. Here we hear from experts who face all the same real-world challenges surrounding how to make health the norm for a household as the rest of us. I encourage you to do as they say because their advice has passed the critical test: It is also what they do with and for the people they love most in the world.

Be a Role Model

Michael Dansinger, MD
Founding Director, Diabetes Reversal Program Tufts Medical Center; Wellness Director, Boston Heart Lifestyle Program

I am a lifestyle medicine physician and a parent of three children ages 15, 13, and 11 years. My wife and I have found great value in modeling healthy lifestyle habits and telling our children that the purpose of these practices is to stay well.

Our children see us each making nutritious meals, be them healthy salads or cooked dishes, which we teach them to prepare. They learn how to strike a good balance between good-for-you foods and “treats,” and watch us gradually become a little stricter about the latter as we age. We exercise daily and encourage each child to participate in team sports such as diving, basketball, and track. They learn good sportsmanship and how to focus on gradual self-improvement and inspiring teammates. As a family, we participate in volunteer activities that help others to lead healthier lives as well, including working in soup kitchens and teaching children’s swimming lessons.

Our children can easily see that we take our commitment to healthy living seriously and that it’s integrated into our daily lives. Together, these family practices train them in how to live their best lives.

Set the Stage

Joel Fuhrman, MD
Board certified family physician, nutritional researcher, six-time New York Times bestselling author, author of “Disease Proof Your Child”

Not all parents recognize the importance of feeding children healthfully; those who do face an uphill battle because letting children eat junk food has become the norm. However, once unhealthy behaviors are established, they are very difficult to derail.

I encourage you to create a home environment full of healthful influences. Eat dinner together as a family. Keep a variety of healthful, natural foods on hand so children can choose and enjoy their favorites: cut up raw vegetables with hummus or other homemade bean and nut dips. It is never too early to talk about how vegetables build our brains, not just our bodies, and how processed foods weaken our brains, makes us less intelligent, and even lead to unhappiness. Even young children can understand the concept that every part of your body can be helped or hurt by what goes in the mouth.

Do your best to avoid making food a source of conflict. Make sure your children know that your desire for them to eat healthfully comes out of your love for them and the desire for them to have a happy, healthy life. There will always be some occasions when your children will want to eat foods their friends are eating. I suggest giving them some freedom in these situations, offer suggestions to minimize the harm, but not controlling or berating them after.

The daily eating habits you establish at home set the foundation for your children’s food preferences and future health.

Make Room for Mistakes

Tom Rifai, MD, FACP
Henry Ford Health System Regional Medical Director, Metabolic Health; Wayne State University Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine

While leaving your child with a legacy of both physical and emotional wellness requires dedication and, at times, hard work, some of the most important tenets of doing so are quite uncomplicated.

An often overlooked one is being compassionate to yourself as well as others in your family's journey toward a healthy lifestyle. Instead of beating ourselves up for “slips,” let's turn them into opportunities to “S.L.I.P.” (stop, look, investigate and plan). Try to avoid feeling guilty over challenges and, instead, rise to the occasion.

For example, if you're on vacation with another family who planned ahead and walked to a restaurant while your family was running late and took a taxi, state how good their idea was instead of lamenting that you weren’t a part of it. Perhaps suggest walking back to the hotel as families together, "especially since we all shared a little treat for dessert." This will show your child the value you personally place on having a good relationship with physical activity and food.

Bringing everyone as “all in” as possible is important. Welcome the family to ask questions and answer without judgment. And remember, lifestyle is about always learning. You may need to look up answers to questions. When doing so, please use a reliable source such as the True Health Initiative or the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Skip the Lecturing

Dina Rose, PhD
Sociologist, parent educator, feeding expert

The best way to encourage a culture of health for your kids is completely counterintuitive: Don't talk to your kids about health (or at least not before introducing healthy habits). Doing so, it turns out, almost always backfires.

For instance, there's ample research showing the more parents push healthy food because it's healthy, the less kids want to consume it. In one study, published in Health Education Research, children were less likely to say they liked a beverage when it was labeled as healthy than when it was simply labeled as new. Think about it this way: You can enjoy food because it tastes good; this is called an experiential benefit. Or, you can enjoy food because it will make you healthy; this is called an instrumental benefit. When people focus on something’s instrumental benefits, whether that be eating good food, being active, or what not, they enjoy it less.

The idea that doing what’s right is better than simply knowing what’s right isn't as radical as it may seem. After all, we teach children the habit of bathing before we teach them the value of hygiene. We teach them the habit of riding in a car seat before we teach them about auto safety. The examples go on. So, skip right over the conversation of health and get right to promoting actions that translate wellness know-how into behavior. You can help your kids establish healthy ways before they even know their habits are good for them.

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