Sunday, December 6, 2015

How to Motivate Kids to Eat Healthy - Make Motivational Moroccan Carrot Sticks

My mother never spanked me. Not once. She did however, hit me once. Well, it was really more of a slap on the wrist. After I had misbehaved yet again, she screamed at me and told me to hold my hands out, with my palms faced downward. Sullen and confused, I obeyed. Then, with one swift strike, she slapped me on the back of my outstretched hands.

Raising kids is tough work. You have to be a parent, friend, consultant, disciplinarian, psychologist, and behaviorist all in one. No one really teaches you how to be a good parent, so you end up recalling a lot of what your own parents did. 

Certainly, you can motivate your kids through negative reinforcement. But punishing them by taking food away or using food in a punitive way can set up unhealthy associations with food. Negative reinforcement, while initially effective, also tends to be less and less effective with time.

Rather than carrying a big stick, I advocate using the power of positive reinforcement to help your kids develop healthy eating habits. Using carrots to incentivize your kids builds self esteem and healthful eating habits at the same time. A popular message for childhood obesity prevention is the 5-2-1-0 campaign, which advocates five servings of fruits and vegetables, two hours or less of screen time, one hour or more of physical activity, and zero sugary beverages per day. 

The 5-2-1-0 campaign is a great foundation for obesity prevention. However, it doesn't go far enough to treat our existing child obesity crisis. In order to actively treat our obese kids and help them develop the kinds of behaviors that effectively induce weight loss, I created my own 5-2-1-0 rule for obesity treatment:

5 Servings of Protein

Children afflicted with obesity should strive for five servings of protein per day. In order to maintain weight, we need to eat 0.7-1 mg of protein per kilogram of ideal body weight per day. In order to promote weight loss and maintain muscle during the process of weight loss, we need to eat approximately 1.5-2 times that amount. Good sources of protein include animal meat, eggs, plain greek yogurt, cheese, peanut butter, and nuts. 

2 Weeks of Exposure

Helping your kids adopt healthy eating patterns takes time. It may take two weeks of exposure to a new food before a child eventually accepts it. Additionally, it may take up to one month of reinforcement to adopt a new habit altogether. For instance, one study demonstrated that repeated dietary exposure to green beans in infants ultimately resulted in greater consumption of green beans. 

1 Big Reward

Kids and adults alike need to be motivated to change their behavior. It can be helpful to set up a reward system. Create a sticker chart that helps your child keep track of their daily protein intake over the course of two weeks. At the end of the two week period, reward your child with a non-food based incentive such as a new toy or a fun activity. 

0 Added Sugar

In addition to setting up daily protein goals for your child, it is critical to teach them the harms of added sugar. Foods with added sugar, such as processed food and sugary beverages,  are particularly high in glycemic index and have a strong association with obesity. One study found that the risk of childhood obesity increases by sixty percent for each additional daily serving of sugary beverages in middle-school children. Teach your children to look for added sugar like high fructose corn syrup on nutrition labels and make your household a zero added sugar domicile.  

I never resented my mom for that slap on my wrist. Perhaps it's because I knew I deserved to be punished for being such a brat. Or perhaps it's because a slap on the wrist doesn't hurt all that much. Mainly, it's because that one incident paled in comparison to the overwhelming majority of acts of love my mom showered me with. But you don't' have to choose between a carrot and a stick. Try this recipe for motivational 
Moroccan Carrot SticksThese healthful sticks are both the incentive and the reward!


Steeelman GM, Westman EC. Obesity: Evaluation and Treatment Essentials. 2010.

Ludwig DS, Peterson KE, Gortmaker SL. Relation between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and childhood obesity: a prospective, observational analysis. Lancet 2001; 357:505–08.

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