Okay, there is a hint of satire in the title but actually according to recent reports there are scientific reasons kids don’t like vegetables. And if we do want them to eat their vegetable we actually need to STOP forcing them and find other ways for them to eat healthy. Read on to find out more.
According to Russell Keast — a professor in sensory and food science and the director of the Centre for Advanced Sensory Science at Deakin University — our aversion to vegetables and ‘adult’ drinks has to do with fascinating evolutionary reasons.
“A lot of the work we’ve done in terms of how people develop liking to foods has been based around caffeine and the role it has,” Keast told The Huffington Post Australia.
“Caffeine is a bitter compound and it’s naturally found in coffee, tea and chocolate. It’s also an additive to certain cola beverages. That’s interesting because bitterness by itself is one of these warning signals.”
That is, through our species’ evolution, we have learned that it’s vitally important not to consume something that’s potentially dangerous (bitter).
It was often that plant foods contained compounds that may be harmful, so some more bitter foods, like brussels sprouts or olives, triggered natural protective responses long ingrained in our DNA.
“If you go outside and pick up a leaf, put it in your mouth and chew it, it’s invariably going to be bitter. That’s because we’ve got a system which says it may be dangerous,” Keast explained.
“The system is incredibly robust in that it identifies tens of thousands of compounds, and all it’s suggesting is the bitter product (via aversiveness) may contain something that causes harm.”
For our species’ survival, taste (especially bitterness and sourness) has been critical. Yep, we are smart.
It’s no surprise then to learn that your favorite veggies, especially broccoli and brussel sprouts, contain this bitter compound.
“In fact, it was often that plant foods contained compounds that may be harmful, so some more bitter foods, like brussel sprouts or olives, triggered natural protective responses long ingrained in our DNA,” Keast said.
“Sensitivity [to bitter compounds] is a little higher when we’re young. Within this spectrum, there’s also huge amount of variation between people.”
If you still really hate (or can’t stomach) broccoli as an adult, and you’ve honest to god tried many times, you may be a ‘super taster’.
“If somebody is experiencing high levels of bitterness, let’s say, to broccoli, doing things like repeated exposure of that food isn’t necessarily going to teach liking of that food,” Keast told HuffPost Australia.
“There’s a lot of variation in how we experience these foods. Somebody may have a great aversion to broccoli because they’ve got the bitter taste receptors that are responsive to a specific compound in broccoli. Whereas other people don’t have that receptor and, therefore, don’t experience the bitterness from broccoli.”
But there’s another evolutionary reason why children (and some adults) dislike vegetables.
“With vegetables specifically, we have had no reason to develop an overt liking response to them,” Keast explained. “Plants were generally plentiful, so we didn’t need an incentive to seek them out.
“Now we have supermarkets with foods developed to our liking, so we don’t need these primal responses, but they are ingrained in our DNA and it will take thousands of years for them to evolve out.”
So, why is it when we age that, all of a sudden, we like broccoli? The answer is not that our taste buds change, but we just learn to like it.
“We build up a taste for things through gradual exposure,’ Keast said.
If the nutrients provide energy, perhaps other positive effects in your body, your liking system will remember, the next time you eat the food you may start to enjoy it.
“There’s a number of things we don’t like when we first experience them, but a lot of learning comes into it. That’s the critical thing when it comes to developing taste.
“A lot of the turn off when you are younger can be because of unusual flavors, bitterness or texture related. There’s a whole variety of things. Bitter is obviously one of the key components that will turn people off certain foods.”
But vegetables are safe, which is why it’s so important for kids and adult veggie haters to try them again, and again.
“This gives the nutrients in the food a chance to influence your liking system — if the nutrients provide energy, perhaps other positive effects in your body, your liking system will remember, the next time you eat the food you may start to enjoy it,” Keast said.
I know that parents feel like they are doing a good thing when they cajole, bribe and mandate that kids eat their vegetables. But I wonder if they have thought about what forcing kids to eat will look like in 20 years?
What You Are Actually Telling Your Child When You Force Them to Eat Their Veggies
- Don’t trust your body, someone else knows what is best for it.
- Vegetables are something to be choked down and disliked. Too bad, eat them anyway.
- Being healthy is really just about eating your veggies. It’s not about giving your body the fuel it needs or eating a variety of foods that taste good to you.
- Dinner is not meant to be an enjoyable family experience, but a battle of wills.
- Join the clean plate club and continue eating even when you are no longer hungry.
What You Should Do To Encourage Eating Vegetables/Healthy
- Serve family meals and strive to include at least one food from each food group.
- Role model healthy eating.
- Practice the Division of Responsibility from Ellyn Satter: you serve the foods, the child chooses whether to eat them.
- Make mealtime pleasant, focusing on conversation and polite manners rather than how much or what is eaten.
- Give light prompts to encourage trying new foods or eating from all the food groups that you’ve included in the meal: “Wow, have you tried this asparagus, it’s wonderful?”
- Check out these 15 strategies from Fearless Feeding author Maryann Jacobsen.
What If You Didn’t Force Vegetables on Your Child?
I understand the parental fear: “If I were to let my child eat from whatever was available at our dinner table, they would eat all the bread, rice or pasta and nothing else.” If you have been feeding your child with an authoritarian feeding style, you are probably right. But if you shift to the division of responsibility in feeding, your child may binge on preferred foods for several weeks until they trust that the new pattern and your new attitude will persist. Then they will likely surprise you by experimenting with some new foods. Not every day, but rather making slow, incremental progress that will gradually expand their food choices. It takes some kids years (decades even!) to learn to enjoy certain vegetables. Give them the time they need to come to the conclusion on their own – it’s truly the healthier way to approach healthy eating.
What has your experience with getting kids to eat vegetables been like?