My Child Won’t Eat Vegetables

“My child won’t eat vegetables.”

Congratulations! Your child is in the majority. Seven out of 10 children aged 4 to 8 do not meet the five-serving minimum of fruits and vegetables recommended by Canada’s Food Guide. Stats Canada states only about 40% of Canadians over the age of 12 eat the amount they should, and it’s been this way for at least a decade.

This isn’t terrible news. At all. But it can be if it’s reported the right way.

The World Health Organization, boldly states that “approximately 1.7 million (2.8%) of deaths worldwide are attributable to low fruit and vegetable consumption.” Lame, WHO, why all the doom and gloom? What age bracket is affected? Is this a concern for an elderly population or breastfed infants? And over what period of time? I have never seen nor heard of the dying, crawling through the countryside, desperate for a bite of life-saving kale. Secondly, it’s hard to believe physicians are actually filling out death certificates citing “didn’t eat veggies” as the cause.

Insufficient intake of fruit and vegetables is estimated to cause around 14% of gastrointestinal cancer deaths, about 11% of ischaemic heart disease deaths and about 9% of stroke deaths worldwide. Most of the benefit of consuming fruits and vegetables comes from reduction in cardiovascular disease, but fruits and vegetables also prevent cancer. Rates of deaths and DALYs [Disability Adjusted Life Years] attributed to low fruit and vegetable intake are highest in middle-income European countries and in South-East Asia.

Doesn’t that sounds like they’re really stretching out the facts? “Estimated” seems to mean ‘we’re not really sure, so we’ll convince people to eat more vegetables and watch what happens.’ It would be equally accurate (and probably more effective) to say “adequate vegetable consumption is estimated to have prevented about 86% of gastrointestinal cancer deaths, about 89% of ischaemic heart disease deaths and about 91% of stroke deaths worldwide.” Good work, keep it up!

To keep this promising track record on course, the WHO recommends adults eat 400g of fruit and vegetables every day for cardiovascular health and cancer prevention. Ok, count me in, but what does 400g look like? How much broccoli are we talking about here?

Canada Food Guide (CFG) suggests 7 servings (1 serving is 125ml or 125g, or 4 1/2 cups total) for females and 8 servings (5 cups) for males beginning at age 14 through into adulthood. The USDA has similar recommendations. I happen to like most fruits and vegetables, but I don’t know if I want to eat quite that many of them every single day.

If we use 1/2 cup of boiled and unsalted peas and carrots as an example, that is one 80g serving. Canada’s Food Guide and My Plate recommendations for the average adult male are twice what the WHO recommends. My 47lb seven year old son should be getting 5 servings (2 1/2 cups) of fruit and veggies, equal to the WHO’s dietary guidance for a 200lb adult. This is recommended, most curiously, to prevent obesity.

Are North American dietary guidelines expecting too much? Perhaps it doesn’t make for such a great news story to report that we, as a continent, are probably not doing all that poorly nutritionally. I do understand the idea is to eat a variety of foods from all the food groups. Why not just state that much simpler advice instead of playing on our fears and threatening the public with disease and death? Wait… that would be an estimate of the possibile prevention of future disease, and death (which cannot be avoided.) So why confuse the public with a strict quantitative measurement in vague terms and suggest the avoidance of flavour enhancement? If fruit and vegetables are so important for our health, why is it frowned upon to improve or even change their flavour to something more palatable with the help of salt, sugar or fats?

I know fruits and vegetables are one of the food groups that should be on our table, but even if I were to serve the recommended daily amount, there is no tried and tested, guaranteed way to make my kids eat them. 

Vegetables

Vegetables (Photo credit: neonbubble)


Why not ask them, seeing that children are the ones most expected to be eating these foods. A review of data collected from thirty-one international studies provide us with valuable insight on how much kids like eating fruits and vegetables, and what children think of our attempts to get these foods into their diet. 

Fruit

  • sweet, juicy, and fun to eat
  • any time food
  • slimy, too many seeds

“4-5 year-olds thought that you could only eat fruit for lunch and in the afternoon, whereas 11-12 year-olds thought that you could eat it whenever you felt like eating it.”

Vegetables

  • preferred when they are crispy, crunchy and juicy
  • cooked vegetables are slimy, gooey, bitter and ‘make me feel sick’
  • are a dinner time food

“The sensory attributes of vegetables were often linked to negative connotations. In one study from the Netherlands, the sensory attributes children considered when evaluating whether they liked or disliked fruit and vegetables differed by age which may reflect different stages of cognitive development.”

Why We Don’t Love ‘Em

  • even when there is a high taste preference for fruit and vegetables, children will not eat them if it is not convenient
  • not filling enough to satisfy hunger (especially for boys)
  • children are confused when parents try to limit children’s intake of “junk” food (crisps, chocolates, etc.) and yet, use these very same foods as treats for being good
  • children don’t like being preached to about “healthy eating” (11-12y)
  • blemishes and bruises mean they will taste bad (10-18y)
  • make you go to the ‘loo’, gas in your stomach, get stuck in your teeth

Two studies reported that children’s perceptions of healthy eating almost invariably included fruit, vegetables and salads. Some studies found that children did not classify their food into healthy and unhealthy, rather into liked and disliked. Two studies found that children reasoned that if a food tastes bad it must be good for you and the reverse.

What We Hear You Tell Us

  • give you strength, make you stronger, help the body grow and make you taller, more muscular
  • contain vitamins, specific nutrients, good for the eyes and teeth
  • improve body image, avoid fatness, remain slender, loose or gain weight

“Children appear to base their food choices rather on taste, hunger satisfaction, appearance of food, and peer pressure.”

Vegetables are unpalatable to a population who base their food preferences on taste. Parents are being advised to serve these foods kids describe as ‘yucky and nasty’ without fats, sugar and salt that would help make them taste better. And then parents wonder and worry why their kids won’t eat them. Fruit is just as nutritious, much easier for children to like, and a food perceived as acceptable to eat more often.

Developing eating competence with such intense focus on consuming copious amounts of fruits and vegetables is a daunting prospect in today’s fat phobic culture. While parents tend to elevate the status of produce to foods that protect us from disease, kids are hearing a very different message. Across the globe, children are growing up believing that fruit and vegetables “make you strong, more muscular, help you lose or gain weight, remain slender, avoid fatness…” Eating disorders are on the rise and being diagnosed in children at younger ages.

Most of the teens in this review reported that if even if they had a liked fruit and/or vegetable in their lunch, they likely would not eat it. Reasons cited included inconvenience, lack of time and social pressure. Competing interests for junk food were also mentioned. The study touched on satiety value across age groups and completely ignored that food choices might be influenced by energy needs to support childhood growth and development. Nah, that couldn’t possibly be relevant.

Our children are worthy of our trust. If we want our children to embrace sound nutritional ideals and beliefs, we need to turn the healthy food preaching completely off. Our children are watching and listening, observing their parents enjoying a variety of foods and taking note of the labels we assign to eating (healthy, bad, fattening, delicious). If we are competent eaters as parents, we can trust that we have been good nutritional examples for our children to follow.

Source:

Determinants of fruit and vegetable consumption among children and adolescents: a review of the literature. Part II: qualitative studies International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2011

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5 responses to “My Child Won’t Eat Vegetables

  1. What an excellent, well-written article! I am so tired of feeling like a bad mom because my 3-year-old daughter hates fruit and vegetables. I hide them in other foods, but there is no way she meets the dietary guideline standards. That being said, she is perfectly happy and healthy. I struggle with IBS and often eating fruit and veggies (eapecially raw) gives me terrible, terrible pain and horrible gas, so I definitely don’t (and can’t) eat them in the amounts you mention. Seems there is “hope” for me after all 😉

    • Even without IBS, I have trouble meeting the dietary guidelines, as do most people (so says statistics). The guidelines fail to consider that some people just can’t (for whatever reason) get 400g of fruit and veg in on a daily basis, and then scream fail when people can achieve 300g or 200g or a single serving regularly, or even most of the time.

      We all do the best we can, and we could use a lot more “good job” messages for our efforts. 🙂

  2. Where I live (Newfoundland, Canada), virtually all fruits and vegetables are imported, and by the time they hit the shops, tend to taste like wet cardboard. They are also prohibitively expensive for many families. Never mind the environmental and human costs involved in getting these products around the globe – they just taste awful. My almost-five-year-old could probably be described as picky because he won’t touch most imported produce. But when presented with vegetables from our garden (especially snow peas), fresh-picked berries, even edible weeds, he’ll eat his fill. So he gets lots of fruit and veggies in the summer and fall, not so much in the winter and early spring. He’s a happy, healthy kid who knows what he likes! Five to ten servings of soggy polystyrene imports, all year ’round? I don’t see what that can possibly do to enhance health or encourage a love of food.

    • Agreed, Andrea – and you bring up an excellent point. It’s assumed that families buy canned vegetables because they can’t afford fresh. Sometimes, as you mention, geography just doesn’t allow for a satisfactory level of quality or variety at a reasonable price.

  3. Very interesting. I recently heard that only 3-5% of Americans follow the dietary guidelines, and I think we can all agree that more than 3-5% of Americans are healthy and thriving… The amounts of veggies recommended do seem almost impossible, and I think also adds to a sense of apathy. If achieving the goals feels impossible, why try at all? Thanks for putting this together!

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