How Friendship Affects Children's Eating Habits
Dr. Salvy says the study's results reflect a child's need to feel accepted by other children. "Kids start comparing themselves to others at a really early age," she says. "Although family has a huge impact on food and making foods available, kids are spending a lot of time with their friends, peers at school and on sports teams. The more they age, the more friends and peers have a bigger influence."
Should you let your overweight child interact with other overweight children?
Although the research seems negative, it also highlights the benefits of friendship—friends can also help each other become healthier. "Instead of seeing [the research] as overweight kids should not eat with overweight kids, we need to influence a child's behavior," she says. "Chances are that he can influence his friends. It's not about forbidding kids to eat with overweight kids, but its changing friends' habits so they're actually reinforcing each other's habits."
Dr. Salvy works with Dr. Leonard Epstein on his Traffic Light Diet program, which helps children lose weight and keep it off. The program asks families to get involved in the process of changing the children's eating habits, but Dr. Salvy says it might evolve to include the children's friends as well. "One of the reasons why we involve the family in the weight loss program is that if we change the behavior of the child and put them back in the family with the same [bad] eating behaviors, chances are the old habits will come back," Dr. Salvy says. "What we're thinking is that if it is possible to involve friends in this program, they would keep each other accountable."
What you can do to improve your child's eating habits
Start helping your child eat better with Dr. Salvy's advice on how to improve your child's eating habits.
- Provide healthier food at home. "Remove the bad foods from the house," Dr. Salvy says. "If you have them in the house, the kids will eat them. Expose them to a variety of healthier food options."
- Work with the parents of your child's friends to create better eating habits for your child and his friends. "If the [eating habit] change occurred in one of the friends or in both of the friends, it's more likely to be maintained because they're going to reinforce each other in those behaviors," she says.
- Get your child involved with other friends. "We know that they are more physically active when they are with other kids," Dr. Salvy says. "Children don't run on treadmills. They play with their friends; that's how they get their physical activities. Have them involved, but insist on healthy behavior like playing and being active and eating healthier options."