New research shows families outstrip celebrities as children’s healthy living role models

The research, conducted as part of BNF Healthy Eating Week 2016, surveyed a total of 14,399 children aged 7-16 years old, and found that, while children are bombarded with celebrity stories and images, they still look up to close family members to set an example for healthy living. Nearly a third (31 percent) of children surveyed say that family members are their healthy eating role models, while almost a quarter (23 percent) of children report that family members are their role models for being active, second only to sports people (26 percent).  Celebrities rank further down both the healthy eating and exercise role model lists (identified by 11 percent and 9 percent of the children, respectively).

The research, one of the largest surveys of its kind in the UK, also reveals that the balance in role model influence shifts with age.  While 37 percent of 7-10 year olds rate family as their role models for healthy eating, under a quarter (23 percent) of 14-16 year olds do the same.  Conversely, six percent of the younger age group look up to celebrities as healthy eating role models but by the age of 14-16 years, this percentage has nearly trebled to 16 percent.  A similar pattern is seen for sporting role models with the proportion of children looking up to family members dropping from 28 percent at age 7-10 years, to 23 percent by the 11-13 year age group, and again to 17 percent by the age of 14-16 years.  The influence of celebrity role models for healthy eating rises from four percent in 7-10 years olds to 13 percent in the 14-16 years age group, and varies from 6 percent in boys of all age groups to 16 percent in girls.

The research looks at the eating habits of children and examines their attitudes towards strategies for effecting positive behaviour change.  These include:

  •        Buddying – working with someone else to make a healthy change
  •         Nudges – environmental changes and reminders
  •         Targets – setting goals
  •          Rewards – celebrating achievement

The most popular choices for behaviour change strategies amongst all children surveyed are targets and rewards (both 29 percent).  The largest proportion (33 percent) of children in the youngest age group, 7-10 years, would choose to buddy-up, while the biggest groups of children in the 11-13 year and 14-16 year age groups would opt first for targets (32 percent and 30 percent respectively) and then rewards (30 percent and 31 percent respectively) as their preferred strategies.

Roy Ballam, Managing Director and Head of Education at the British Nutrition Foundation said: “We are able to see from the children’s point of view the influence that close family members and friends can have on their attitudes and behaviour in relation to food and exercise, as well as the positive impact that strategies for changing behaviour can have in their lives.”

The research also indicates the importance of friendships in helping children to stay motivated; when asked to consider who they would choose as their buddy, most children (43 percent) say they would choose a friend, and nearly a third (30 percent) say they would choose a parent or carer.  Only two percent respond that they would choose to buddy with their teacher.

Ballam continued: “While models for good practice can be set out, and the science and application of food and nutrition learned in the classroom, children told us that they look to those close to them at home to help them implement positive changes in their lives.”

When asked what nudges they would choose to help keep them on track with their healthy changes, 36 percent of the children surveyed say they would choose to have healthier food and drink options available at home, although the research also shows that over half (55 percent) can already help themselves to fruit and vegetables at home all of the time. 

Children in the survey demonstrate their independence in wanting to set their own goals for healthy eating and physical activity, and keep a track of their own progress.  Nearly half (49 percent) say they would choose to set their own targets, while 44 percent indicate that they would make a chart or keep a diary themselves, or rely on their memory to keep track (24 percent).  Family members are the second most popular choice for helping children with setting targets - a quarter of children surveyed say that they would ask a family member to help them to define these or help them keep track of their progress (15 percent).

Reinforcing again the influence of family on children’s behaviour, nearly a fifth (16 percent) of children say that a fun activity with their family as a reward for success would make them try even harder.  This choice comes second only to a pocket money reward – the most popular choice among all children surveyed (33 percent).  Unsurprisingly the balance of reward choices shifts with age; 21 percent of 7-10 year olds say they would choose a fun family activity compared with 10 percent of 14-16 year olds, while 21 percent of the youngest age group would choose a pocket money reward, compared with 35 percent of 11-13 year olds and 38 percent of 14-16 year olds.

The strongest motivator for wanting to eat healthily among the children surveyed is to be a healthy weight (29 percent).   Being a healthy weight is less of a consideration for younger children, with 16 percent of girls and 12 percent of boys aged 7-10 years saying this is a reason to eat healthily, while 44 percent of girls and 27 percent of boys aged 14-16 say this is a motivator for them.

27 percent of children surveyed say they are motived by a desire to be sporty; 26 percent want to feel good and a quarter say their motivation is to have nicer skin, hair, nails; while 23 percent report that they want to eat healthily to have more ‘energy’.  Among older boys, aged 14-16 years, being sporty remains a strong motivator (28 percent) but for girls of the same age it has less importance (14 percent), while nearly half of 14-16 year old girls say that having nicer skin, hair or nails is a motivator.

Across all age groups, the children surveyed report being most motivated to be more active by a desire to be sporty (36 percent); to have more ‘energy’ (31 percent); to feel good (27 percent); and to be a healthy weight (25 percent).

The research examines the current behaviour of children at home. Over three quarters of all children (78 percent) report having access, and can help themselves, to fresh fruit and vegetables at home all or most of the time, with only 4 percent reporting that they can never help themselves.  Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of children say that they help with cooking at home all or most of the time, and 60 percent sometimes help with cooking.  Almost a third (31 percent) of all children surveyed say that they eat their evening meal in front of a screen – TV or computer, all or most of the time.

Ballam concluded: “These research findings indicate that family role models are important in helping young people to make good choices related to food and physical activity and in supporting them in remaining motivated to achieve their targets.  But it also shows that children have negative feelings and perceptions associated with healthy living which need to be countered – 14 percent of children say that the thing that stops them from eating healthily or being more active is that “I find it boring” or “I don’t have time” and 13 percent say “I can’t be bothered”.

“What we understand is that schools and families can and should successfully work together to, in turn, educate children and then motivate them in their endeavours to make healthier choices and keep on track. Through BNF Healthy Eating Week we provide support and resources to help with this.”

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