What would Batman eat? Science-based tips for nudging children towards healthy choices…


Just like a school report card, the Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card (HAKSA) 2016, an initiative by the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA), supported by Discovery Vitality, grades the state of South African children’s health. No parent would be happy with its scores. Understanding that raising healthy kids isn’t for sissies, Discovery Vitality’s experts (also moms and dads) share key tips and insights from HAKSA and the science-based tips that make raising healthy children – also capable of their own healthy choices – like child’s play.

Is being healthy a revolutionary act? Ask a parent raising kids in today’s obesogenic world of fast and processed food, pedaled to children at every turn, and it’s likely they will answer Yes! Mother of three children (all under age 10), Candice Smith, knows exactly what it’s like for parents: “Children’s birthday parties can dissolve into a mass of screaming children tanked on refined carbohydrates. A stop at the supermarket with kids in tow instills terror, as parents run the gauntlet of brightly packaged sugary deliciousness that often doubles as a toy.” As Head of Nutrition Strategy at Discovery Vitality, Smith understands it can be hard to raise healthy children. But, more importantly, she also understands how easy it can be.

Parents beware: Obesity and health are contagious

Parents are the nutritional gatekeepers. They control most of what kids eat. Healthy parents, friends and family members not only influence each other but also their kids and, so too, do obese individuals exert similar influence. Strokes, diabetes and heart disease aren’t conditions we think to link to kids. In today’s world, they’re the norm. “Globally, less than 20 % of kids meet recommendations for physical activity,” says Head of Discovery Vitality Wellness, Craig Nossel. “Ours is the first generation of children set to have a shorter life span than their parents.” Nossel, a father of teenage twins adds that,

“We cannot be with our kids 24-7. But we can empower them to know the difference between a healthy and unhealthy choice, of their own accord.”

Discovery Vitality’s Healthy Active Kids South Africa 2016 Report Card tells on kids

“South Africa is a country of devastating extremes. One 1 in 4 city-dwelling preschoolers are overweight or obese, yet in rural settings 74 % of children are underweight. Obese four to eight-year-old boys and girls are respectively 20 and (a staggering) 42 times more likely to be obese when they reach the age of 16.”

South African teens drink an average of more than one soft drink per day and have a weekly sugar and salt intake far higher than recommended. In the last 5 years, the number of people buying fast food in any month has increased by 10 million.

The 2016 Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card (HAKSA) is a global initiative of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, supported by Discovery Vitality. It builds on the 2007, 2010, and 2014 report cards to give parents access to the best scientific evidence on physical activity and healthy eating in South African children and youth. “Like a report card, the study gives grades to different indicators of physical activity and nutrition, from early childhood to age 18,” explains Nossel. What sort of report card is HAKSA 2016 sending home to parents?

  • Overall physical activity levels: C
  • Sedentary behaviour: F
  • Overweight and obesity: D
  • Fruit and vegetable intake:  D (worsened from C- in 2014)
  • Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugar & salty snacks: F (worsened from 2014 – salt intake: D and sugary drinks: D-)
  • Fast food intake: F
  • Schools with vegetable gardens: C

Parents’ survival guide: Science-backed tips for nudging kids towards health

As Head of Discovery Vitality Wellness, Nossel, and his team, spend much eye-opening time learning from the science of Behavioral Economics. Its tenets underpin Discovery’s Vitality programme which rewards adult members for daily, healthy behavior. “If we can understand what motivates adults to make healthy choices why not do the same for children?” asks Nossel.Scientists the world over are doing the hardest work on behalf of parents – they’re finding out what makes kids tick when it comes to choosing healthy food.”

 Research shows that:

  1. Kids love ready-to-eat bite-sized pieces of fruit and vegetables, rather than whole servings.
  2. Kids eat healthier food after thinking about what a favorite super hero would eat. Six to 12 year olds shown French fries (227 calories) or apple slices (‘apple fries’ at 34 calories), who said their hero would eat apple slices chose these for themselves too.
  3. Catchy veggie names like X-Ray Vision Carrots, Hulk-morph Power Punch Broccoli or Tiny Tasty Treetops and Silly Dilly green beans also attracted children to these options.

 When it comes to portion sizes eaten, research teams found that:

  1. Big bowls or plates make for big appetites and lead children to ask for up to 52 % more food – and waste more.
  2. Parents should ensure nutritious options rather than restricting snacks, substitute unhealthy snacks (plate of fried potato chips) with healthy ones (veggies and cheese) and remember to offer small amounts of a variety of snacks on a plate.
  3. When eating out parents are advised to offer kids healthy foods along with small portions of indulgent foods e.g. a protein and vegetables with a small portion of chips on the side.
  4. Parents can consider asking Are you satisfied? as opposed to Are you full? to help children to think about achieving satisfaction, not fullness.
  5. Overweight children who garden and grow their own veggies are more likely to lose weight. Research shows that gardening reinforces nutrition concepts and positive health messages around understanding the source of natural, whole food.


“Disordered eating can often be traced back to early experiences with food deprivation or excess,” explains Smith. “Severely restricting foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt increases children’s preference for these foods.” Parents are advised to refrain from withholding food, linking it to punishment, offering contingencies (e.g. “you can have pudding if you eat your broccoli”) or forcing children to eat foods. “Don’t reward kids with unhealthy foods. Using food as a reward for good behaviour or success also increases the risk of binge eating and other eating disorders,” adds Smith. Parents should consider non-food rewards – a trip somewhere new, a sleep over with a friend, new art supplies, extra reading time before bed, listening to music or playing a game.

The solution: abundant healthy options crowd out the junk

Childhood obesity experts are shifting their focus from weight and dieting to health. “Ultimately, a focus on bringing as many healthy options as possible into our children’s lives will automatically crowd out the unhealthy choices,” adds Nossel. “By making healthy options abundant in our children’s lives, we begin the revolution that turns the tide on the HAKSA 2016 findings and the devastating levels of global childhood obesity.”

 Candice Smith’s top tips for keeping a family’s diet healthy and exciting:

  • My overall priority is to create and encourage a healthy relationship with food – to teach my children to recognise how good whole food makes their bodies feel.
  • I keep mealtimes interesting by eating seasonally – a wide variety of fruit and vegetables tend to be less expensive and taste better in season.
  • When shopping with my kids I allow them one treat per shop but ensure I am in the fruit, butchery and dairy aisles first. They’re munching on their treat by the time we get to the danger zone – the sweet aisle.
  • I include my children in the cooking process. We’ve been to kids’ classes at Discovery’s HealthyFood Studio and they’ve loved making wholewheat pasta or home-made tomato sauce.
  • I encourage a fussy eater to try new flavours by telling kids they must try everything once before telling me they don’t like it. I also continue to put a food they’ve previously said ‘no’ to on their plates and insist they try one bite.
  • Getting 25% cash-back through the Discovery Vitality HealthyFood benefit helps me to buy more of the vegetables, fruit and nuts that empower my kids to choose from various healthy snack on offer between meals. I also use beans and lentils as an inexpensive source of protein that also help meals go further.

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