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Forbidden fruit

Controlling children's diets is essential but be careful how you do it.

Got kids? Live near kids? Used to be one?

If you answered yes to any of those questions Halloween will not have passed you by unnoticed. The 31st October is fun for everyone, of course, but kids definitely get the best deal. Parties. Superhero costumes. And a once-a-year opportunity to extort unlimited supplies of candy from their neighbors and play tricks on those who don't cough up.

Parents certainly come to expect a few upset tummies after the festivities - even a chocolate-loving 3-year old starts to feel a little peaky after his seventeenth Reese's peanut butter cup. But what are the longer term effects of teaching kids that candy bars and salty fat-filled snacks are naughty objects that are only allowed to be consumed freely on certain days of the year?

Some psychology research suggests restricting junk food may have the paradoxical effect of making kids like it even more than they already do.

In one oft-cited study experimenters picked two equally-liked snackfoods - let's call them Eyeballs and Fingers, in keeping with the Halloween theme. They sat a bunch of kids round a table laden with big bowls of Eyeballs and told them they could eat as many as they wanted. Meanwhile the Fingers were presented on the same table in a transparent box and children were forbidden to eat them.

In a later part of the study when children were given free access to both it was clear which the kids had learned to prefer - the (previously forbidden) Fingers disappeared hand over fist while the (previously available) Eyeballs sat relatively untouched.

Of course, this was just a short-term experiment - for all we know when the kids next saw Eyeballs and Fingers they wolfed both of them down without discrimination. But other studies have also shown that kids with parents who adopt a strict policy of restricting junk eat more of it when confronted with unlimited piles and given permission to cram in as much as they'd like.

So does this mean that restriction and keeping some foods as treats are doomed enterprises? Should we give kids free rein to eat what they like and hope they end up eating healthy of their own accord?

The answer is probably No. Children need guidance to make sensible choices in today's junk-filled environment. But other research suggests that there are better ways to do it than rigid limitations.

For example, one study found that ‘covert' control strategies - like taking your kids to restaurants with healthy choices, or avoiding keeping junk in the house - were linked with less intake of unhealthy snacks in kids. And another found that mothers who used an ‘authoritative feeding style' - supporting kids to eat healthily without ramming it down their throats - had children with healthier diets.

Where does that leave parents regarding challenges like Halloween or Easter, when every child expects to be spoilt with sweets?

Resistance is probably futile and may make matters worse to some degree. So it's probably best to be flexible and allow a little junk. But festivals are also a great opportunity to sneak in some nutrients and sew the seeds of a few new healthy preferences (for fun Halloween ideas beyond the candied apple take a look here).

After all, most little boys are pretty skeptical when you ask them to try a lychee for the first time. But have you tried telling one it's a monster's eyeball or a horntailed dragon's egg? I guarantee you they'll be flying off the plates in no time.

More from Susan Carnell Ph.D.
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