Eating is driven by a reflex to replenish energy and is governed by the brain as well as the hormones secreted by the gut . Hunger is not the only driver of appetite: food itself provides powerful visual, smell and taste signals which stimulate feeding .
So why would a hungry child presented with a pleasantly-looking plate of food refuse to eat it?
"Beliefs about food is a piece of the puzzle that's often overlooked", says Eric Anderson, a researcher the Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Science at Tufts University. "We typically think that the experience of eating is simply the result of what we put in our mouth: the taste of the molecules. But the experience and even how the body digests is also driven by psychological factors, including beliefs".
In Eric's research, people came into the lab to taste a food product, beef jerky, placed in front of them on a white plate. Participants were told that the animals were either raised on a factory farm or raised humanely. Eric found that the description changed beliefs about the meat sample. Although participants were given the exact same beef jerky, they experienced factory farmed meat as less pleasant in terms of appearance, taste, and smell. They also ate less of it.
Eric's work suggests that beliefs shape how we experience consuming food and more importantly, that beliefs are so easy to manipulate--that is basically what advertisers and restaurants do--implant beliefs about foods.
Although this work was done with adults, it may offer insights to use with kids. Perhaps we should start thinking like restaurateurs and change our messaging about food.
Some ideas on how to present healthy food as fun and special:
- Telling a fascinating story about where the food came from. I find that telling the story to others (husband, or when he's not home - our dog), rather than directly to my child, captures her attention even more. When kids see others sharing a belief, they tend to trust it more.
- To form positive beliefs, talk about how much you like the food. It may sound silly, but eating with your child and commenting on the taste and texture of your food may be a simple but powerful way to form positive beliefs. How often do we verbalize our experience of food?
- Sharing everything you eat with your child, even if it's 'unhealthy'. Limiting access to "bad" food (or using it as reward) promotes a belief that this food is highly desirable. If you are eating a cookie and your child asks for it - share and don't make a big deal about it. To limit how much junk food the child eats, limit how much you eat it and how much is available in the house.
 Ahima, R. S., & Antwi, D. A. (2008). Brain regulation of appetite and satiety. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, 37(4), 811–823.
 Morrison, C.D., & Berthoud, H.R. (2007). Neurobiology of nutrition and obesity. Nutr Rev, 65(12 Pt 1), 517-534.