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25 May 2022

Laurann O'Reilly: Fifteen top tips on how to be a healthy role model

Laurann's excellent column in this week's Nationalist

Six top nutrition tips for boosting your immune health with Laurann O'Reilly

Laurann O'Reilly

We can often underestimate the impact and influence that we have on young children and teenagers as well as the important role that we have on their eating and health behaviours.

Here, nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, explains the importance of being a healthy role model and how we can have a positive influence on the health and food choices of the children around us.

Why Are Role Models Important?

Public health researcher Rachel Ingersoll has found that “role models can profoundly impact an individual’s development” and describes how “many health-related behaviours can be adopted as one transitions from adolescence to young adulthood” particularly in the college aged children.

Having a healthy role model helps to educate and support children in making the right choices and in setting the foundations for their health.

There are many ways to set a healthy example for children at home and of course how you do so can vary depending on your own household.

How Can we Be A Healthy Role Model?

1) Establish A Routine: Although I mention this one quite often, I can’t overemphasise the importance of establishing a routine especially when it comes to mealtimes. The body loves routine as it can help to synchronise with the body’s natural body clock also known as the ‘circadian rhythm’. Research has shown that as this partly signalled by our dietary intake, so eating at consistent times is important for maintaining this natural body rhythm.

Tip: Why not try having your meals and snacks at the same time (or as close to as possible) each day and see if you notice any changes. This can work extremely well for children too and can establish lifelong healthy eating habits.

2) Having A Healthy Breakfast: It’s often been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Not only is it an essential source of energy for to fuel our bodies for those busy mornings, it’s also an important source of valuable nutrients for growth and development. Breakfast also plays an important role for children in terms of memory, concentration and enhancing learning.

Tip: Getting into the habit of sitting down for breakfast together (where possible), can play a key role in establishing lifelong morning eating habits.

3) Snacking: Be mindful about what you eat in front of your children (as they are likely to copy you). Enjoy snack time together and try to choose healthy snacks such as fruit, vegetable sticks, yoghurt, cheese or crackers where possible.

4) Avoiding Distractions/ Mindful Eating: Many of us have gotten into the habit of eating whilst using our phone, tablets, in front of the television or whilst on the computer. However, eating is a deeply sensory experience involving our smell, taste, touch and visual senses. If these senses are distracted by external influences such as technology, this can disrupt the eating experience and can even have an effect on the efficient digestion of our foods.

Tip: It can help to focus on eating without distraction, this is called ‘mindful eating’, within which we can try to savour and taste the food

5) Aim To Eat Slower: We all have busy lives and are constantly on the go, with that many can end up missing meals or eating too quickly. However, getting into the habit of eating more slowly and role modelling this, can have great health benefits such as improving digestion as well as improving our satiety (fullness feeling), as it allows time for the brain to receive the signals that we’re full.

6) Limit Screen Time: We can role model healthy screen-time consumption by limiting the amount of time (or setting a timer) for yourself and your children for screen exposure, such as watching television, phones, tablets or playing video games. Instead engage and encourage structured activities or free play. It can also be helpful to limit distractions by turning off notifications or shutting off devices during family time or meals. Remember that it is okay to use screen-time as a way to wind-down, but try to balance with creative projects like drawing, colouring, physical play time, or reading.

7) Preparing Meals Together: It really is great to involve children of all ages in the cooking and preparation of meals. This can help to teach children about the different foods, introducing new foods, food preparation and the importance of healthy meals. Empowering children to play a role in healthy eating also helps them to be more open to trying new things.

Tip 1 – Choosing The Foods: Invite children to contribute to meal planning and choosing the food such as fruits and vegetables they would like to incorporate.

Tip 2 – Give Them A Child Friendly Cooking Task: They can really get involved in the process with some child-safe cooking tasks such as measuring or stirring.

8) Eating At The Table: When you join your child at the table, they are able to learn how to eat by watching you. This also includes the way you talk about food and eating as well as eating behaviours. It gives you the opportunity to talk about how food tastes, looks, where different food comes from and how it’s prepared.

9) Tooth Brushing: It’s important from a young age to get into the habit of good oral health and parents can play an essential role modelling the timing (a minimum of twice a day, morning and evening) duration of tooth brushing a minimum of 2 minutes) but should also be able to demonstrate how to brush teeth completely and effectively. Tip 1 - Sugar Exposure: Sugar can also have a big impact on the health of both our own and our children’s teeth, so the avoidance of high sugar foods and sugar sweetened drinks including juices and smoothies (opting for water or milk instead) can play a key role. Tip 2 – Get Advice & Resources: For support, recommendations and activities on tooth brushing such as tooth brushing charts check out https://www.dentalhealth.ie/

10) Avoid Food Rewards: Instead of using food as a reward for good behaviour, why not try some non-food related activities such as a star/rewards chart, picking a book to read, game to play or going to the park (whether permitting of course).

11) Celebrity & ‘Influencer’ Exposure: Rachel Ingersoll also found in her research that the three most prevalent role models reported for healthy eating were “friends, family, and entertainers/celebrities”. With friend influence being reported at 36.3%, family influence being 29.3% and celebrity or entertainer influence found to be at 12.3%. The rise of ‘influencer’ marketing on social media can therefore play a key role in food choices and behaviours of children and teenagers as they aspire to look and be like them.

12) Getting Active: Research has found that active parents are more likely to have children who are also active through the modelling of consistent physical activity. Tip: Why not try to create active games with your children, getting creative with equipment and surroundings, as well as walks, cycling and swimming together.

13) The Great Outdoors: Being outdoors (where possible), is not only great for our mental health but it gives children a greater opportunity to be active. Heading into the summer and of course weather permitting, why not try having some outdoor meals or picnics too.

14) Caring For The Environment: We can make a positive impact on the environment through some role model practices with the slightly older children too, such as teaching them about recycling and avoiding food waste.

15) Practicing Self Care: We often underestimate the importance of self-care, however this is key in preventing fatigue, burnout and achieving balance in our lives. Supporting our mental health is important for both us and our children, it can also be different for everyone. It can help to include activities that feel the most natural to you, however you can also challenge yourself with something new.

Tip 1 - Engaging & Connecting: This could involve creating regular space to talk together about feelings (for example morning coffee chat or an after-dinner walk and talk)

Tip 2 - Practising Mindfulness: This helps to improve self-awareness (for example journaling, painting or drawing feelings, thoughts and emotions)

Tip 3 - Practicing Deep Breathing: This can be a great technique for stress relief for the whole family (for example breathing in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and breath out for 4 seconds).

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