Nearly 20 percent of U.S. households with children lack access to foods that meet the nutritional requirements for an active, healthy lifestyle.

This “food insecurity” comes in many forms.

It includes poverty where a family can’t afford nutritious foods, living in a “food desert” where quality food isn’t available, or having too much junk food in a child’s diet.

Children Food Insecurity

According to a new study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association the number of households with children who had severely low levels of food security nearly doubled between 2003 and 2010.

The researchers said food insecurity can lead to physical impairments, including obesity, as well as psychological issues and family disturbances.

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A ‘Preventable Health Threat’

The study’s co-author Christopher Taylor, Ph.D., associate professor of medical dietetics and family medicine at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, says food insecurity is absolutely a preventable health threat and parents play a huge part in this.

“Much of a child’s behaviors can be attributed to what their parents model for them. A parent who doesn’t eat — or buy — vegetables will likely have a child who doesn’t eat vegetables,” he told Healthline. “When money is tight, food purchasing decisions are often focused on meeting immediate primal needs and are less focused on the healthiest alternative.”

Researchers examined 7,435 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They found that children raised in low- or very low-food secure households were as much as 1.5 times more likely to be obese.

Besides being overweight, the children had central obesity — excess fat around the stomach and abdomen. That increases a person’s risk of a group of factors linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and the precursor to developing type 2 diabetes.

“There is a great deal of evidence for the therapeutic effects of diet and lifestyle change on the prevention and treatment of chronic disease. More importantly, this is a time period where children are developing their patterns that they carry into adulthood,” Taylor said. “As well, children who are overweight are more likely to become overweight or obese as adults and more likely to develop chronic diseases.”

Beyond the physical ramifications of poor nutrition, new research adds to the growing body of evidence of the importance of physical activity and brainpower.

A new study published in PLOS One shows children who are aerobically fit have a better academic performance, especially in math, than children who are unfit or overweight.

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Utilizing Education and Resources to Improve Health

Ericca Lovegrove, R.D., a clinical dietitian with the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, helps educate parents on better eating habits, including meal planning.

“Food insecurity plays a role because of the access to these foods,” she told Healthline. “I think, in general, parents want what’s best for their children, but the situation can be stressful.”

For poorer families, meal planning can include utilizing canned and frozen fruit and vegetables and avoiding the convenience and cheap costs of fast food. This could mean taking advantage of local food pantries or school lunch programs, Lovegrove said.

“School lunches possess an enormous opportunity to address some of these needs,” Taylor said. “However, for many children that may be most if not all of the food they have to eat.”

Most food assistance programs provide resources to buy food, but are not specifically designed to fully promote healthy eating. But programs like WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) allow assistance for specific foods to address key nutritional needs for pregnancy, breastfeeding, and child growth. Programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provide resources for foods to supplement a family’s needs. 

“Food assistance programs can provide a bridge to assist those with limited resources to eat a healthy diet,” Taylor said.

Overall, these children need to be served fewer cheap processed foods like sodium-rich ramen noodles, and more quality inexpensive foods like protein-rich peanut butter, eggs, and beans.

It could begin as simply as choosing peanut butter cracker sandwiches at the corner store instead of a packaged pastry, Lovegrove said.

“We put an emphasis on nutritional quality, which is most important,” she said.

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Eating Quickly Affects a Person’s Health Too

Kids are notorious for wolfing down their meals, but new research suggests this, too, can affect a person’s ability to metabolize their foods.

A new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology examined the eating habits of 8,941 Japanese residents. Researchers found the faster a person ate, the likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome increased. This is likely because eating quickly leads to overeating because the stomach doesn’t have time to feel full.

“Eating slowly is therefore suggested to be an important lifestyle factor for preventing metabolic syndrome,” the study concluded.