Toddler Nutrition

Social Cues for Healthy Nutrition

New research with infants gives us reason to think that social cues might be very important for shaping food preferences beginning at a very early age. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zoe Liberman and colleagues summarized a series of experiments that document the importance social cues.

They found that infants already understand the social nature of food by the time they are one year old. They concluded that infants expect people within the same social group to share food preferences. In contrast, infants expect reactions of disgust to be more universal, shared across different social groups. Katherine Kinzler, a co-author of the study, explains:

Kids are sensitive to cultural groups early in life. When babies see someone eat, they are not just learning about food – they are also learning about who eats what with whom.

A lot of policy surrounding nutrition is about teaching what foods are healthy. That might be a really important thing to do. It also might be more effective to think about incorporating some of this social information into programs aimed at getting kids to eat healthier by providing them role models from their social groups or who they trust socially and have those people endorse those different kinds of healthy options.

Much of food and nutrition policy focuses upon rational decision making. The process for issuing dietary guidelines involves years of painstaking attention to details. That process repeats every five years. Rules about nutrition labeling for food products and restaurant menus become the subject of heated debates that take years.

Meanwhile a significant portion of the population is unmoved by those rational cues for healthy food choices. And so it is that a perfectly rational food policy – such as restaurant menu labeling – can turn out to have little impact on consumer behavior.

Social and emotional cues often carry the day. Just ask a toddler.

Toddler Nutrition, photograph © Matt Preston / flickr

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September 8, 2016