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Growing up Healthy: The Importance of Establishing Healthy Eating Habits Early



Dr. Linda Van Horn is the professor of preventive medicine-nutrition at Northwestern University. Dr. Van Horn’s current research relates to maternal and fetal nutrition and metabolism, and the prevention of early disease onset in childhood due to diet and nutrition. Dr. Van Horn was the moderator for this week’s American Heart Association twitter chat, #LifeisWhy, focusing on the importance of fruit and vegetable consumption. To learn more, sat down to speak with Dr. Van Horn.

This week, the American Heart Association’s September Life is Why Family Health Challenge focuses on helping families make healthier choices at the grocery store. One of the most important things for parents and families, according to Dr. Van Horn, is “starting children early with a healthy diet, and reinforcing the accompanying behaviors that come with that lifestyle for better well-being. Diets play such an important role across the life span.”

“One of the most important aspects to remember, is children remain flexible. The younger you start with healthy choices and behaviors, you will be reinforcing and establishing better food preferences for the rest of their lives. Children are influenced by those who eat around them, and will adapt and accept what they are given, even though it might take a few exposures for them to adapt,” Dr. Van Horn said.

“There are many studies that document that children will be more likely to eat those foods the more they have exposure to it, and the more they see others around them also eating it. Providing an environment that supports that behavior can only improve that child’s chances to adhere to that type of healthy lifestyle. In terms of practical application, and encouraging consumption of more fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Van Horn, who draws from her personal experience as a mother of two.

“Simply, it requires that every eating location include a fruit or vegetable, whether you are packing their lunch or eating out or at home. You never look at a meal or a snack without thinking, ‘What fruit or vegetable can I include?,’” Dr. Van Horn said. “I had two busy athletes, so there were many times that I would pack breakfast, lunch and dinner. In each case, there was a fruit, vegetable or both. I think that it really becomes an expected aspect of the meal or snack eventually. Now, neither of them would consider eating a meal without one or the other. However, to do this, it does take some forethought, planning, and anticipation of life events, but with those things in mind, it can be accomplished and become routine to add those to each meal once you get into the habit.”

As part of the American Heart Association’s Family is Why initiative, they are promoting not only eating more fruits and vegetables, but also looking for these items in your local corner stores, grocery stores and farmers markets. Dr. Van Horn said, “I have noticed that farmers markets have caught on across the country. In Chicago, they are very well-attended. I believe that most communities look forward to offering that for their populations, and that people in communities are beginning to realize that the taste of freshly produced foods is very different.”

“One thing that can help farmers markets continue to expand is to do more marketing,” Dr. Van Horn said. “Marketing is required in order to continue to inform the public of their presence. Currently, most of the public is still unaccustomed to finding farmers markets.”

Dr. Van Horn also noted, “in my recent travels I saw more fruits and vegetables at gas stations and corner stores. I think that the corner store idea has taken more time to become familiar with. I have seen that the partnership between corner stores and the public is vital, and that it takes the public taking full advantage of that store, and expecting that those fresh fruits and vegetables would be available, to truly transform them.” 

“I had the privilege to serve as the chair of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Committee. It was great to work with them, and look at the nutrition information and science available. It was clear that what we currently eat has contributed to the obesity epidemic and diseases. The advisory committee was one-hundred percent united that America’s children deserve better,” Dr. Van Horn said.

“In order to achieve this, adults have to take immediate responsibility. We have to be the ones with a voice and push forward for healthier food choices now so that this emphasis will be less needed in the future. We want our children to grow up in a lifestyle that helps them reach for that healthy choice first, and establish habits that will carry over into their adulthood.”