I’d Like Water With Those Fries

Want your kids to eat their vegetables? Serve them with water.

That’s the advice of T. Bettina Cornwell of the University of Oregon and Anna McAlister of Michigan State University. The two researchers were involved in two separate studies about food and drink choices. Their findings were just published in the journal Appetite.

The first study was a survey of 60 young adults, aged 19-23 to see what food-drink combinations they preferred. The majority said when they’re drinking soda, they’d much rather be eating salty, calorie-dense foods than vegetables.

In the second study, a group of 75 children ages 3 to 5 were tested on two separate occasions. One day they were served a sweet drink and offered carrots and red bell peppers and the next they were offered the same vegetables, but with water.

As I’m sure you’ve already figured out, the kids were more likely to eat the vegetables when they drank water, not soda.

You might be thinking “DUH” because, of course, you wouldn’t dream of serving your children soda with their supper. The point, according to Cornwell, is that children learn at an early age to associate “sweet, high-calorie drinks such as colas with salty and fatty high-calorie containing foods like french fries.”

“Our taste preferences are heavily influenced by repeated exposure to particular foods and drinks,” she says. “This begins early through exposure to meals served at home and by meal combinations offered by many restaurants. Our simple recommendation is to serve water with all meals. Restaurants easily could use water as their default drink in kids’ meal combos and charge extra for other drink alternatives.”

Serving water, says McAlister, could be a simple and effective dietary change to help address the nation’s growing obesity problem, which has seen increasing number of diabetes cases in young adults and a rise in health-care costs in general.

Once considered rare, obesity in children is now one of the most widespread medical problems in the country. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Statistics show about 17 percent of American children ages 2 to 19, or 1 in 6, are obese.”

Obese children are at risk of developing not only diabetes but also high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and kidney disease, not to mention a host of long-term health issues.

There are a lot of reasons why children become obese, including:

  • Genetics. Obesity tends to run in families
  • Diet. Too much fast food, processed snacks, and sugary drinks
  • Physical inactivity. Spending a lot of time in front of television or at computer.

Even if your child isn’t overweight, the researchers believe their studies suggest that developing a preference for certain tastes and combinations in early childhood may influence choices later in life. “If the drink on the table sets the odds against both adults and children eating their vegetables,” concludes McAlister, “then perhaps it is time to change that drink, and replace it with water.”

And you might also think about the vegetables you’re serving. The recommendation is to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I came across a CDC survey that looked at the proportion of vegetables served to children 2-19 ages. Nearly half of all the vegetables served were fried potatoes!

I guess if that is the vegetable of choice for your children, at least give them water with those fries!