You can hardly turn on the news without hearing about childhood obesity. This shouldn’t be surprising given the statistics: Roughly 33% of school-aged children and adolescents in the United States today are overweight or obese. Childhood obesity has been linked to numerous adverse physical and emotional health outcomes in both the short and long-term.
The good news is that in an effort to slow or prevent overweight and obesity, organizations, schools, and early care and education facilities across the US are exploring formal and informal ways to support healthy behaviors among their students and families. And while many are having positive impacts on the dietary and physical activity behaviors that underlie overweight and obesity, there are some unintended (positive!) consequences: they are also seeing improvements in self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-confidence.
A Concept of Ourselves
How you perceive yourself – referred to as your self-concept – is in large part derived from self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-esteem is the confidence that one has in their own worth or abilities: the respect that you have for yourself. Self-efficacy, on the other hand, is a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a particular task or achieve a specific goal.
Having a high self-esteem and self-efficacy has been associated with numerous positive outcomes in life. In fact, self-esteem was once assumed to be intrinsically valuable to student’s motivation, engagement in academics and social activities and related to persistence in learning. While this appears to be true for individuals with a high self-efficacy, research has not born out the association between self-esteem and academic performance. Instead, the manner in which we give messages to our children about themselves – the messages that will influence their development of self-esteem – seems to be the crucial factor: praising the process (“you worked really hard”) rather than the child (“you are really smart”) may be a key component promoting the development of healthy self-esteem and promoting academic achievement.
Self-efficacy, Behavior Change & Food Intake
Self-efficacy is also one of the core concepts of the social cognitive theory, a way of describing and encouraging individual behavior change in countless aspects of human health including smoking, dieting, physical exercise, dental hygiene, and seat-belt use. Self-efficacy influences whether you initiate behavior change,, how high you set your goals (e.g. “I intend to reduce my red meat intake.” vs. “I intend to stop eating red meat.”), how much effort you will put into making the change, and how long you sustain it. High self-efficacy is also an independent predictor of healthy eating behavior, in particular consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Factors Affecting Self-Efficacy & Self-Esteem
There are four factors affecting development of self-efficacy including:
- Experience (mastering something);
- Modeling (seeing others, especially others we view as like ourselves, succeeding);
- Social persuasion (direct encouragement/discouragement), and
- Physiological factors (e.g. the perception that butterflies in the stomach before public speaking are a sign of low ability).
Self-esteem is similarly bolstered through a high sense of mastery at something. In early childhood, parents have the greatest influence on self-esteem: children with high self-esteem had parents who were caring and supportive, set clear standards, and allowed their children to voice their opinion in decision making.
Interactions around Food Can Help
Rather than being a source of shame or struggle, interactions around food and eating provide an important opportunity to increase self-esteem and self-efficacy in children. Here’s how:
Garden-based nutrition intervention programs have gained popularity in recent years as a strategy for changing dietary habits of both young people and adults alike. An excellent example of this is the LA Sprouts program in Las Angeles, CA. A garden-based nutrition intervention program designed for low-income, primarily Latino, elementary school students in the Los Angeles area, LA Sprouts’ mission is to influence dietary intake, obesity-risk and nutrition-related behaviors. Students in these intervention (vs. control) schools had increased vegetable and fiber intake and improved perceptions of and preference for vegetables, as well as decreased blood pressure and less weight gain. What happened? For these students, their experiences in the garden helped them believe that they could eat more fruits & vegetables and ask for and prepare the fruits and vegetables they wanted at home and to actually do it! Other studies using less formal community gardens show similar improvements in physical, mental, and emotional health. How? Gardening provided opportunities to develop mastery, voice opinions, and for others to use social persuasion to influence behaviors of the gardeners: all factors influencing self-efficacy and self-esteem. Furthermore, working in a garden provides a lot of opportunity for experiencing process praise, the key component to developing a healthy self-esteem.
- Take action: Even if you can’t create a backyard garden, growing a few small potted and edible plants with your children can provide benefits.
Planning is one of the executive functions, a set of mental processes that guides numerous activities from organizing and strategizing to managing time and space. Building these skills takes practice, and meal planning can help. Younger kids can be involved in simply identifying what meals they would like to eat, while older children can further help by reading recipes and preparing shopping lists. In addition to helping your kids build a framework for future executive functioning, weekly meal planning is an opportunity to learn about the days of the week, practice math skills (what if that recipe needs to be doubled? Or halved?), learn about geography (where does coconut milk come from?) and talk about different food groups. This kind of engagement will help build self-efficacy and self-esteem through modeling, giving kids an opportunity to voice their opinions and through appropriate limit setting (ice cream for dinner two nights this week is not going to happen!)
- Take action: Encourage your kids to read recipes, help prepare shopping lists, and find ways to use food to explore other topics (math, geography, limits, etc..).
Several studies have shown that adolescents who are involved in food preparation and cooking have make better food choices and have healthier diets overall. Lack of confidence in one’s ability to prepare food is also commonly cited as a reason that more people don’t cook and instead rely on ready-made or restaurant meals. There are countless ways that kids can be involved in meal preparation and cooking: washing and sorting vegetables, measuring grains or spices, stirring the pot, even chopping vegetables. As children get older, let them experiment with recipes and take the lead with a night’s meal. Cooking especially is a powerful tool for providing process praise and teaching them that mistakes area part of the process – that they can be a tool for improving. Your eggs stuck to the pan? What happened during the process and how can you make a change next time? When cooking at home, the stakes are pretty low, but the opportunity to develop mastery, witness modeling, and experience unconditional love – regardless of the outcome – are very high.
- Take action: Encourage your kids to chop, cut, measure, and stir. As kids get older let them take the lead!
Kiyah Duffey, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech.
Department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise
Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now an assistant professor in the department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise at Virginia Tech. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three children (ages 4 and under). In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of almost two dozen scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.