Research demonstrating that three-to-five-year-olds have an awareness of which foods are healthy, and which foods are not, suggests preschoolers should receive education about food and nutrition, say researchers.
The study, published in Appetite, aimed to document young children’s evaluation of food and drink as healthy, and to explore relationships with socioeconomic status, family eating habits, and children’s television viewing.
Led by Mimi Tatlow-Golden of University College Dublin, the research team gathered data from 172 children aged from three to five years on their ability to identify healthy and unhealthy foods and drinks.
"Our results demonstrate that a very high proportion of children aged 3–5 years identified the healthy nature of fruit, vegetables, potatoes and milk, even after removing responses where children showed a ‘yes’ bias," said the research team.
"However, children’s understanding that one should eat little of high-fat or high-sugar unhealthy meal and snack items, such as chips (French fries), sweets (candy) and Coca-Cola, was substantially lower," they said.
Tatlow-Golden and her colleagues added that their findings add support to a small body of research indicating that preschool children "can meaningfully identify healthy foods … and the present study expands on this research with its finding that this applies across a socioeconomically diverse group."
"The findings of this study suggest that young children should receive education about unhealthy foods and the nutritional properties and health consequences of food from 4 years of age, as this is the time at which their understanding of unhealthy food begins to increase and at which they start to apply health-based explanations to healthy and unhealthy foods," the team concluded.
A total of 172 children aged three to five from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland took part in the study.
Tatlow-Golden and her colleagues reported that the children had very high levels of ability to identify healthy foods as important for growth and health, but considerably less ability to reject unhealthy items, although knowledge of these increased significantly between ages 3 and 5.
"Awareness of which foods were healthy, and which foods were not, was not related to family socioeconomic status, parent or child home eating habits, or children’s television viewing," the team noted.
"Correct responses to these less healthy items increased with age, with the most robust difference found between the ages of 4 and 5 years," they added. "However, it was notable that, at 5 years of age, children were still only able to identify just over half of unhealthy items as foods one should not eat much of, in order to be healthy, at levels not better than chance."
The researchers also highlighted the importance of examining young children’s response patterns, as many of the youngest showed a consistent ‘yes bias’; however, after excluding these responses, the significant findings remained, they said.
"These findings point to the importance of early childhood for learning about healthy and unhealthy qualities of food, and add to the evidence indicating that there is a particular gap in young children’s understanding about unhealthy foods," concluded Tatlow-Golden and her colleagues.
Source: Appetite Volume 71, 1 December 2013, Pages 163–170, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.08.007 "‘Big, strong and healthy’. Young children’s identification of food and drink that contribute to healthy growth"Authors: Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Eilis Hennessy, Moira Dean, Lynsey Hollywood