A family sitting down at the dinner table for a meal. Courtesy of TNS

A family sitting down at the dinner table for a meal. Courtesy of TNS

A new research study conducted by Ohio State professors challenged the idea that people who adopt healthy eating behaviors will naturally decrease their unhealthy eating habits.

The research team led by Sarah Anderson, an associate professor of epidemiology, found that preschoolers in a low-income area in Columbus, who regularly eat fruits and vegetables every day, do not necessarily refuse sweets and fast food.

Co-author Gail Kaye, an assistant professor of clinical public health, said that a diet is sometimes evaluated using a composite score that blends how much healthy and unhealthy food a person consumes.

“Healthy and unhealthy aspects of children’s diets may turn out to be independent of one another,” Kaye said. “The assumption that the healthy eating behaviors would displace the unhealthy eating behaviors did not pan out.”

For the study, 290 parents and guardians of 357 preschool children were interviewed. The parents and guardians were asked to reflect on the children’s consumption of various types of foods in the past week.

The article stated that fruits, vegetables and milk were categorized as healthy food while sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food, sweets and salty snacks were considered unhealthy parts of children’s diets. The response categories ranged from “none” to “four or more times per day.”

The result showed that about half the children ate fruit two or more times a day. More than a third of them ate vegetables several times a day. About 96 percent drank milk at least once a day.

However, only 33 percent of the children in the study did not drink sugar-sweetened beverages, like sodas, and 29 percent did not eat fast food. Most of the children ate salty snacks and sweets every day, according to the research article.

Kaye said that the research team is still testing out its hypothesis in a much larger, possibly national, sample.

“We did this research in a very small sample here in Columbus,” Kaye said. “We’ll see if the same kind of finding holds up on a more representative sample of U.S. children.”

Co-author Carol Smathers, an assistant professor of public health, said that if the conclusion does hold true, parents need to take two approaches to address children’s obesity, focusing on nutrition education on both choosing the “good food” and not choosing the “bad food.”

“A greater emphasis may need to be placed on removing the unhealthy foods and beverage choices from environments where the young children live,” she said.