Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

Why Letting Your Child Decide What to Eat Is a Good Idea

My mom was the queen of dieting; never satisfied with her weight, she tried all sorts of diet and exercise gimmicks. At the same time, she made sure she had a good “meat and potatoes” kind of meal on the table and loved to make homemade cookies, cake, and brownies for me and my father. I later learned that is not uncommon behavior for women who are unhappy with their weight. Studies have shown that when mothers diet, they may feed their children the very foods the mothers themselves are craving – usually high fat, high carb delights. While my mother’s behavior was perfectly normal, at least according to the research, it wasn’t all that healthy. And it backfired, at least where I was concerned. Instead of feeling free to eat all of those home baked goodies, I began to worry about my weight. In this case, like so many others, actions do speak louder than words. A friend of mine once asked me, “So telling my daughter that weight doesn’t matter while she sees me berating myself as I weigh in every morning probably isn’t good parenting, right?” Bingo.

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And there’s the real truth of the matter. “If momma ain’t happy, nobody happy.” In essence, the more dissatisfied a mother is with her body and the more extreme weight-loss behaviors (e.g., fasting, crash dieting, skipping meals) she engages in, the more likely the daughter is to report body dissatisfaction and use extreme weight-loss behaviors herself.

Here’s the interesting twist. While some mothers (and fathers) who diet gift their families with the very foods they forbid themselves, other mothers restrict their children’s eating, especially if they think that child is overweight. However, the more mothers restrict their children’s food intake, the less able children are to recognize their own hunger and fullness and subsequently, the more likely the children are to overeat – either because they don’t know they are full or out of rebellion – making them more at risk for being overweight or obese.

            Completely lost now on what you are supposed to tell your child about food and how much autonomy you should give them about their food choices? The problem is that children would likely be better off if we just left them to their own devices. Research suggests that although children’s energy intake can vary wildly from meal to meal, within a 24 hour period, young children (ages two to five) do an excellent job of modulating their food intake as long as we give them healthy choices. They get just what they need, without any coaxing from us. That’s not to say that your children should run wild. By eating with others, children learn which people are usually present at meals and how those individuals act and interact at meals. They learn where eating is acceptable, the times of day when eating is appropriate, how much is eaten and what types of eating occasions certain foods are consumed (e.g., Christmas cookies in December and Peeps at Easter). But beyond that and giving our children healthy choices at meal and snack times, we should really just butt out and let them do their own thing. Why? The ability to self-regulate eating is determined, in part, by the extent to which parents provide autonomy within the structure in eating. Children have the ability to self-regulate energy intakes within a meal and over the course of the day, but when parents impose control, children lose this ability. Excessive pressure to eat the right foods and excessive restriction of the wrong foods will likely backfire – not only do kids who grow up in food restrictive households engage in more binge eating, but they are also more likely to be overweight and/or have body image concerns. On the other hand, studies of children’s and adolescent’s eating habits have found that healthy nutrition practices in kids are predicted by a lack of restrictive control over food choices, low pressure to consume certain foods, and, of course, high intake of healthy foods and low intake of unhealthy foods by parents and siblings.

I know, I know. You’re probably still a little hesitant about the whole “let my child eat whatever they want whenever they want thing.” But that’s not exactly what I said. Your job is to provide your child with an array of healthy food choices and let hunger and satiety be their guide. You’ll notice that nowhere in there does it say to: make your child join the clean-your-plate club, use the you-must-eat-three-bites-of-everything rule (my mom’s personal favorite), bargain with your child to eat her veggies, or to praise your child when he eats the “right” things. But you’ll also notice that it doesn’t say anything about catering to your child’s every whim (the famous grocery store checkout line battle), or allow them to eat anything and everything they want (if there are no Twinkies in your house, they can’t eat them for dinner). None of those are effective practices to teach your child about healthy eating. And don’t fret if there are just some things they refuse to eat. Food preferences change as we age,and there is some evidence that boys and girls prefer different foods.No worries. It will all work out just fine.

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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