Social & Emotional Learning Key to Better Eating Habits

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Psychology Today explains why teaching nutrition doesn’t result in better eating habits, but teaching self-regulation and emotion management skills does.

A recent Psychology Today article summarizes new research from the European Society of Cardiology that suggests focusing on nutritional education will not foster better eating habits in children. Instead, we should be teaching children self-regulation and emotion management skills to combat childhood obesity.

Knowing which are the “good” and “bad” foods doesn’t actually help children make healthier choices. 

The Happy Life, Healthy Heart Program randomly allocated 10 public schools in Brazil to either an intervention or control group. The control group schools simply used a standard nutrition and health curriculum.

Researchers trained teachers in the intervention group to teach nutrition and physical activity, but also taught them how to teach concepts such as habit change, stress management, emotional health, and how to manage quality of life.

In both control and intervention groups, the students learned a lot about nutrition and health. However, only the intervention group changed their behavior. In the intervention group, the proportion of students following the recommendation to avoid fast-food increased by 15%, and the proportion of students following the recommendation to avoid sugary soft drinks increased by 20%. In addition, there was a 28% increase in teacher physical activity.

In behavior therapy, we look at the function of the behavior, in order to create lasting behavior change. Who hasn’t eaten their way out of a bad mood at some point in their life? Kids are just like adults – food can be a potent self-soother. It’s no accident that most “comfort foods” like chocolate or ice cream (or chocolate ice cream!) are loaded with carbs – they tend to raise our serotonin levels when we’re feeling down.

By attending to the function of food as a self-soother, the Happy Life, Healthy Hearts program offers an exciting new take on curbing the obesity problem. Let’s teach children adaptive self-soothing skills and teach them the soothing powers of physical activity.

Read the full article at Psychology Today.

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