Fredric Neuman M.D.

Fighting Fear

Formerly Good Eating Habits—Now Bad

Currently bad eating habits.

Posted Nov 07, 2013

There are loads of rules children learn in order to develop “good eating habits.” I think these rules have been made up by worried grandparents who want their grandchildren to grow up big and strong. In fact, everyone wants their children and grandchildren to be big and strong. Big and strong is an advantage throughout life-—although there are short and skinny people who are also successful. In fact, short and skinny people may live longer.

Children who have grown up during famines or at other times of very limited access to food experience stunted growth. So, it is true that eating enough is relevant to proper growth. However, almost all children in this country have enough food to eat. When the typical child in the typical American household stops eating, it is because that child has already eaten enough. Watching such a child leave food on the plate may make his or her parents nervous. Sometimes these are parents who have learned that their children are in the lower half in weight of all the children their age—or worse, in the lowest quarter or ten percent!  They do not seem to understand that ten percent of normal children are in the lowest ten percent. Some children are destined genetically to be smaller or shorter than others. But these parents do not want their children to be in the bottom ten per cent. So, a number of rules have been developed to encourage children to eat more.

These rules are often disguised as simple table manners. For example, it is proper for everyone to sit down together at the same time for meals. Or, children should eat quietly during meals while the adults are talking. Or, children should learn to eat during mealtimes and not in-between. These are commonly accepted rules that govern the way people eat together. They are firmly fixed into social norms.

Unfortunately, these rules and the others mentioned below do, indeed, encourage children to eat more. As a consequence there are more and more fat children. They grow up to be fat adults. The current obesity epidemic has led to a greater incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Billions of dollars are spent annually in order to effect weight loss among these individuals. In dealing with their weight problems they now have to learn that all the “good eating habits” they learned growing up are really “bad eating habits.”  I list here all these formerly good eating habits:

You should sit down promptly when called to the table and remain seated until everyone finishes eating. Well, sure. We would like our kids to grow up civilized and able to conform their behavior to certain social expectations. But as far as weight control goes, the less time someone spends at the table, the better. Getting up during a meal to do something else for a while is likely to lessen the chance that person will eat something more just to be companionable.

“Stop getting up from the table all the time.”  See above. Wrong. Any interruption of eating is desirable. This habit may be annoying for parents who are trying to organize meals, but a certain amount of getting up and down is okay.

Don’t dawdle while eating. Wrong. You should dawdle. Fat people almost always eat too fast. It literally takes a few minutes for the brain to recognize that you have eaten enough. In other words, people will feel hungry for a few minutes even after they have eaten enough. Someone dieting should try to eat slower than the slowest person at the table.

Don’t play with your food. Another version of don’t dawdle.

Eat, don’t talk. The effect is to eat more. Besides, in order for meals to be pleasant there has to be conversation.

Eat your vegetables. Eating vegetables is important. Strict vegetarians hardly ever get fat. And vegetables are healthy in ways that go far beyond maintaining a proper weight. But is it a good idea to hassle kids all the time about eating their vegetables? If eating vegetables, or any other food, becomes an obligation, those foods will become unappealing. I think the best way of encouraging kids to eat their vegetables is to make vegetable dishes that are interesting. If other people in the family eat vegetables, they will too, sooner or later, perhaps a few months or a few years later. No damage will be done in the meantime. In particular, if it is required that  kids are forced to eat their vegetables before getting cookies, they will regard eating vegetables as onerous and eating cookies as a desirable treat.  As a reward food.

In general, I think it is a waste of time to try to regulate the proportions of various foods that a child eats. I don’t think it can be done.

Encouraging new foods. “Just try a little,” does not work for more than a few seconds. Encouraging a sullen kid to try a new food is reasonable, I suppose. Every parent does it, even if it inclines the kid in the direction of eating more in general. Actually, I think the effect may be just the opposite. Most sullen kids who are bribed or threatened into trying a new food will not like it as a matter of principle. Besides, saying over and over again “Just try a little. Come on, just a little. You’ll like it if you try it. Just take one bite” is annoying; and I think parents should not try to take every opportunity to annoy their kids at the dinner table.

Eat more. Wrong. Some parents have a mistaken idea of how much their child needs to eat to be healthy. Given the opportunity to eat enough, children will eat enough without being encouraged. If a child is really too thin, which would be very unusual, it is because he is sick in some kind of way; and getting him to eat more will not make him less sick. Very often a child will say she is not hungry during a meal. I don’t think it makes sense to threaten her as a way of getting her to eat more.  It may be inconvenient to allow her to eat her food a little later on-- and maybe it is a reasonable social rule to expect children to eat during meal times—but it is not a good strategy to take from the point of view of encouraging kids to eat only when they are hungry.

 A more serious problem is a child who is too fat.  Rather than restrict his or her diet, which is not likely to work, I recommend encouraging eating healthy foods and, of course, exercising.

Don’t snack before meals, it will ruin your appetite.  It does. It is reasonable, once again, to teach kids to eat at mealtimes, because that is when people usually eat. Still, if your goal is to ruin someone’s appetite, it is a good idea to eat a snack before meals. It should be a healthy snack.

Finish everything on your plate. Exactly the opposite of what is taught at weight loss programs. It is not desirable to eat past the point of being hungry just to finish something lying on the plate. During dieting, overweight individuals are told to purposely leave something uneaten on the plate.

Don’t start eating your dessert before you finish the rest of your food. The purpose of this rule is to insure that the main portion of the meal will be eaten. It turns out there is a reason for desserts being sweet and containing other carbohydrates. They will be eaten even if the child is no longer hungry. Not so for meats and vegetables. Therefore, as the rule recognizes, someone eating a dessert will eat less of what remains of the meal. I know allowing a child to eat some dessert prematurely will sound unreasonable to most people because the practice is so ingrained. Rather than adhere to that rule, I think it is more reasonable to skip dessert altogether.

I talk about these considerations and others in my book, The Stuff Yourself Diet, which probably works somewhat better than other diets. The problem is getting people to think about diet and eating habits in unfamiliar ways. It is very difficult to get anyone to change their eating habits, or their habits in general. Therefore, I offer those suggestions and the ones I mention above with no great expectation that people will re-think their own ideas; but I try to maintain a certain optimism.

(c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/