How We Eat report examines the impact of eating behaviours on diet and body size

06 June 2017
Boy eating

The Ministry of Health has released a report looking at the evidence for how certain eating behaviours influence diet and body size throughout the life course.

The How We Eat report is designed to help health practitioners and looks at a range of eating behaviours including, breastfeeding, parental feeding practices, parenting style, and food literacy.

The report was written by University of Auckland researchers, Sarah Gerritsen and Associate Professor Clare Wall, to support the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan.

The report has a particular focus on children and the development of eating behaviours in early life and the role of families and whānau in moulding these behaviours.

The researchers rank various statements about eating behaviours according to the evidence that supports them.  This gives health practitioners a clear idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Key findings include:

  • Avoiding watching TV when eating – people tend to eat more in front of a screen.
  • The importance of adults providing a good example for children, especially eating fruit and vegetables.
  • Involving children in preparing meals and eating together as a family.
  • Eating a variety of foods and flavours when pregnant or breastfeeding (including bitter vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower) can help children accept vegetables in early childhood.

Below, we've listed the evidence statements that receive a Grade A in the report, meaning there is quality evidence to support these statements.

For pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and partners:

  • A supportive partner (with positive attitudes and beliefs about breastfeeding) improves breastfeeding intention, initiation and duration, and a woman's self-efficacy to breastfeed.
  • Involving a women's partner and/or mother in breastfeeding education and support (both before and after birth) can have a positive influence on breastfeeding initiation and duration.

For children under five, the evidence is strongest for the following statements:

  • A nurturing and supportive parenting style helps children to maintain a healthy diet and body size.
  •  Parental restriction of a child’s intake (when they appear to eat too much) or pressuring a child to eat (when they appear to eat too little) are counterproductive, as these coercive practices can lead to poor dietary behaviours and increased body weight.
  • Parents should avoid strict food rules, and also, conversely, they should not give children the complete freedom to choose their food.
  • Setting limits on energy-dense foods and drinks in childhood (up to the age of 10 years) may protect against poor dietary intake and increased body weight.
  • Watching TV while eating increases food intake in children, adolescents and adults, even in the absence of food advertisements. This effect may also be present with other screens (e.g. computers, phones).

For school-aged children and teenagers, there is strong evidence to support the following statements:

  • A nurturing and supportive parenting style helps children to maintain a healthy diet and body size.
  • Eating a healthy breakfast daily in childhood can lead to improvements in academic performance.
  • Regular frequency of eating (three or more times a day) may be related to lower body size in children and adolescents.
  • Watching TV while eating increases food intake in children, adolescents and adults, even in the absence of food advertisements. This effect may also be present with other screens (e.g. computers, phones).
  • Parental restriction of a child’s intake (when they appear to eat too much) or pressuring a child to eat (when they appear to eat too little) are counterproductive, as these coercive practices can lead to poor dietary behaviours and increased body weight.
  • Parents should avoid strict food rules, and also, conversely, they should not give children the complete freedom to choose their food.
  • Setting limits on energy-dense foods and drinks in childhood (up to the age of 10 years) may protect against poor dietary intake and increased body weight.

The authors say early childhood is a time when a real difference can be made to eating behaviours.

” Early childhood is a period in the life course characterised as having ‘high plasticity’ and ‘rapid transitions’ and therefore amenable to behavioural change.

“Parents and caregivers have a high degree of control over their child’s food environment and experiences, and consequently, a young child’s dietary patterns and behaviour appear to be easier to influence than older children and adults,” they say.

You can read the full How We Eat report here.