A NUTRITION CONTRADICTION
Banning soda, sugary cereal or ice cream for your kids just might be a counterproductive health strategy
As a new year begins, I hear many of the typical restrictive resolutions: I will give up gluten, cut sugar, never drink again. Many parents announce they are going to do a better job restricting their kids’ intake of sugar, because this past year they were too permissive. No more soda, sugary cereal or ice cream in the house. Instead it will be all vegetables all the time.
Does restriction actually work? The answer is no. Restricting food does not create healthy eating habits: In fact it usually backfires, steering children to sneak food and overeat.
Food restriction has many faces. Parents restrict when they control portion size or limit seconds. Parents restrict when they ban certain foods from the house. I am guilty of this; my boys beg me to buy Pop-Tarts, but I haven’t because they scream processed food unhealthiness. What has happened as a result of my refusal? My boys want Pop-Tarts more than any other food. Big backfire. Parents also restrict when they buy only “healthy” versions of foods, such as only fat-free cheese or brown rice. Sometimes kids just want that real cheese or white rice.
My restriction stems from fear. I know the science behind how powerful healthy food can be and how damaging too much unhealthy food can be, and so I clamp down on things like Pop-Tarts. Other parents restrict because they are afraid their child will be, or already is, overweight. Perhaps diabetes is a worry, or the parents have their own painful memories of being overweight as a child.
No matter which expression of restriction inhabits your house, the outcome is usually the same damaged relationship to food.
Avoiding the ‘nutrition mindset’
In her book “It’s Not About the Broccoli,” Dina Rose talks about the danger of having a “nutrition mindset” when parents focus too intently on the nutrients or amount of sugar their kids consume daily, rather than looking at the long view of teaching their children to eat a variety of foods in moderation. She explains, “The more that parents focus on nutrition, the worse their kids are likely to eat.” Studies show that if you pressure your child to eat less or you restrict their food intake, they eat more, especially sweets, whenever they have the chance.
Ask yourself, is your end goal to restrict sugar today? Or is it to teach your children skills such as how to navigate a world with tempting foods, how to eat enough but not too much, how to try new foods without fear, and how to enjoy a variety of foods?
If you force your child to eat more healthy foods, they stop trusting their bodies to alert them when they are full. If you withhold particular foods, your kids won’t learn to selfregulate or eat those foods in moderation. Teaching your children to trust your instincts is dangerous, and as Rose explains, it becomes “a self-fulfilling prophecy: You don’t think your kids can self-regulate, so you interfere. Because you interfere, your kids never learn to self-regulate.”
It’s better to teach kids to listen to their own hunger cues and let them decide how much to eat based on those cues. They will make some mistakes and overeat, but mistakes help children learn. If a child doesn’t study for a test and receives a bad grade, hopefully next time she studies harder. If she forgets her shin guards and isn’t allowed to play in the soccer game, hopefully she’ll pack all of her gear for the next game. Eating is no different. If she overeats and feels sick, hopefully the next time she remembers that feeling and does a better job listening to her stomach. If a parent brings her the forgotten shin guards or forces her to stop eating when he thinks she is full, will she ever learn? Probably not.
Dealing with the individual child
Every child is different, and these differences can affect the way in which each child relates to food and restriction. For instance, one of my boys has always been able to self-regulate, to eat a few bites of ice cream and stop when he is full. The minute you tell my other son he can’t have something, he wants it even more.
Don’t go to war with your kids
Regardless of your child’s temperament, restricting has a negative effect. For instance, when you restrict the more self-regulatory child, he may follow your rules and appear to have a fine relationship with food, while in truth he feels ashamed that he secretly wants those restricted foods even though you are praising him for not eating them. Or, he is learning that some foods are unacceptable to eat, so if he ever does eat them even in moderation, he may feel he has done something wrong.
On the flip side, another type of child may resist your restriction and then learn the different lesson that food is a battle, something to control, and that he should eat as much of something as he can because he may not get it again.
When food is restricted, many