I was listening to the podcast Freakonomics Radio (it’s really fascinating and worth a listen!) that was discussing the epidemic of childhood obesity. The topic was “Why You Should Bribe Your Kids“. They did experiments with kids and trying to get them to eat healthier. What was the most effective method?
The conclusion was that kids responded best to being “talked at” (i.e. instructed how to eat healthy and make healthy choices) but only if there were incentives attached. In one experiment they bribed kids with toys if they chose the healthier dessert over the sugary-fattening one. The toys weren’t anything special, it was like rubber bracelets and a ball or something. But the researchers found that the incentive worked and something like 80% of the kids chose the healthier dessert option if it meant they got the toy afterward.
This got me thinking about my own upbringing and struggle with weight. I didn’t really struggle with childhood obesity. I didn’t gain my weight until I was 17. Sure I was a little on the chubby side in my teen years, but I wasn’t heavy. I don’t know that I was making great choices as a kid and teen, but apparently I was doing okay.
Things are different now. The podcast said 1 in 5 kids is struggling with obesity now. That made me really sad and I could empathize with the kids and parents dealing with this. It’s so hard not to make food the enemy and a BAD thing. But that doesn’t really teach the kids to make better choices…it leads to binge eating and sneaking food, or restrictive habits that lead to anorexia and bulimia. (If you missed it, read my review of The Heavy– a book about a mother trying to help her young daughter lose weight.)
“They tried several methods to see what would make kids choose fruit over a cookie. The conversation then broadens, addressing the fact that so many people — kids and adults — have a hard time making good short-term decisions that will have a long-term benefit. As List puts it:
LIST: The general point here about all of this is that you have many problems where what you do now affects what happens later, and usually we choose the easier decision or the easier action now. You think about savings for retirement, you think about getting doctor check-ups, you think about going to school, you think about engaging in risky behaviors, you think about adopting green technologies for our houses. In all of these cases we usually choose the bad action. And that action is to do what’s best for us now to the detriment of the future, to the detriment of our future self. And nutritional choices right now are just one of these elements that we face in society where we need kids to recognize the choice that you make now will critically affect your outcome in the future.”
When it comes to food it’s easy to think IN THE MOMENT and not the future. If I eat this piece of cake, I will have instant gratification. I don’t think about how that piece of cake is 500 calories and about the same calories as my lunch should be. So do I skip lunch and just eat cake for those 500 calories? Of course not, we eat both. That leads to weight gain. For me, I try and think about my meals in advance and plan for them so that I am not AS tempted by other things throughout the day. Am I successful? Most of the time. There are definitely days where I am not as successful as I should be!
I do try to use some kind of incentive for myself, even if I’m not naming it. It might be something small, like: “I will skip this candy at work because I’m going out to dinner tonight and want to be able to splurge a little.” That’s an incentive, whether I recognize it or not. You can also use an incentive like: “I want to reach my weight loss goal for this month so I will do my best to resist the temptations to binge.” Thinking of a long term AND a short term goal work much better for me. What about you?
So what kind of incentives work with kids? I’ve written before about how you can’t reward YOURSELF, Rewarding Yourself, for weight loss with food. It sabotages your efforts. So rewarding yourself with a bunch of cookies after you reach your weekly goal at Weight Watchers just isn’t smart. I think the same thing goes for kids. Rewarding kids for eating healthy foods with treats later, kind of defeats the whole purpose.
I think incentives that would work with kids and still keep with the positive message, is to use ACTIVITIES as rewards and incentives. Perhaps an outing or going to a park, or getting to go to a toy store and pick something. This probably works for really young kids. I imagine it would be harder with teenagers. I found this article, which was really interesting and had a few good tips: 10 Ways to Get Kids to Eat Healthier. Some other articles I found on the topic encouraged parents to have their kids help them cook the meals. I LOVE this idea. I think it would be beneficial in so many ways. Not only does it get kids involved in making choices, they can take pride in what they created and perhaps they would be more apt to eat it?
Since I don’t have kids, I am just musing here. I would love to hear from other parents who have struggled with this issue, or are using other methods of encouraging their kids to eat healthy. Please share! And check out this post for ideas on how to get kids more active: Should You Lose Weight With Your Kids? And this post about sugar in kid’s foods: 2 Pounds of Sugar?