It's not easy being a kid these days.
Clearly, their inherent lack of impulse control is a source of concern for food researchers, overbearing parents, and fast-food advertisers, all of whom have a vested interest in dictating what they think is a balanced diet for a child. But now, one of the most basic assumptions made by all of these groups is being questioned by a team of researchers Ohio State University in a study whose results surprised even those who undertook it.
Seeking to understand the link between "healthy" diets and junk food intake, OSU health researchers found that preschoolers from low-income Colombus, Ohio neighborhoods who had a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, and milk were just as likely to eat foods high in sugar, salt, and fat.
"We assumed that children who ate a lot of healthy foods would also be children who did not eat a lot of unhealthy foods," Anderson said. "I just thought that was the way the world was and it turned out not to be the case."
These results, soon to be backed by a larger national study, suggest that researcher and policy-makers might soon have to reevaluate their most fundamental assumptions if they hope to successfully combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
"This suggests that we have to have two conversations," said co-author Phyllis Pirie, professor of health behavior and health promotion at Ohio State. "There has been a kind of assumption there that if you encourage people to adopt healthy eating that it naturally leads to a decline in unhealthy eating."
In order to reach these findings, OSU interviewers met with parents or guardians of 357 children aged two- to five-years-old and asked them to monitor how often the children ate certain foods in the past week.
The research team then asked them about the children's diets, which were categorized into "healthy" foods like fruits, vegetables, and milk, and "unhealthy" foods such as sweetened drinks, fast food, sweets, and salty snacks.
Among the 357 children, half ate fruit two or more times a day and more than a third had vegetables multiple times a day, with most of the children drinking milk at least once a day.
Still, only a third of the children interviewed did not drink high-sugar drinks and 29 percent had not eaten fast food, meaning that there was no significant difference in junk food consumption between the "healthy" and "unhealthy" groups of children.
For the food researchers at OSU, the implications of this researching are far-reaching and practical. "Instead of assuming a strategically located farmer's market, for instance, will by default mean kids in the neighborhood eat less food high in fat, sugar, and salt, policy-makers might want to also consider emphasizing the downsides of those choices."