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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Children’s Perceptions of Healthful Eating and Physical Activity

Obesity has tripled in Canadian children in recent decades. Healthful behaviours have numerous benefits. Little research exists on young people’s perceptions of healthful eating and physical activity.

Our research question: “What do ‘healthful eating’ and ‘physical activity’ mean to children 11 to 12 years old?”

Findings: Children understood  the concept and benefits of healthy eating but it was not a top-of-mind concern.  A small group of children spoke of how this information was reinforced at home, through discussions of what they ought to eat or having nutritious food available.

Boys spoke mainly of food choices based on taste, especially foods eaten away from home. Girls also spoke of taste, but they contrasted this talk with the need to limit certain items for health and physical appearance…….”I don’t want to get too fat”.

Children thought that healthful eating was less fun than eating High-fat High-sugar foods (HFHS) and associated these foods with social times.

Kids also understood that being active is an important part of being healthy. Kids considered physical activity to be a wide range of activities, not only organized or team sports. Nearly all of the children spoke with pride and excitement about participating in a sports group. Most boys and girls described physical activity as an easier way to be healthy because “it’s a lot more fun” and “cuz I can play sports any day”. Nearly 50% of boys and girls spoke of healthful eating as something that they “should”, “gotta,” or “have to” do because it is “good for you” and “you should eat healthier”.

Conclusion: Children think that physical activity is an easier and more fun way to be healthy than healthful eating. Children feel conflicting pressures about healthy eating and physical activity. One solution children have developed in relation to these pressures is to eat High Fat High Salt (HFHS) foods with friends and nutritious foods at home. Another contradictory pressure, which only girls noted, was pressure to eat HFHS foods versus pressure to stay slim. 

Children’s labeling of foods as “healthy” or “bad, but good”, and physical activity as “fun”, tells us how they feel about the role of food and activity in their lives. Since children make situation-specific food choices, nutrition and physical education should stress that a balanced diet can incorporate all foods when physical activity is present. Such education is important because healthful eating is not a priority of adolescents. Understanding this can enhance communication among parents, educators, and young people.

Children's Perceptions of Healthful Eating and Physical Activity. Protudjer JL, Marchessault G, Kozyrskyj AL, Becker AB. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2010 Spring;71(1):19-23.