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Is Michelle Obama Inadvertently Teaching Her Daughters to Overeat?

Strategies parents use to increase vegetable consumption often backfire.

I’m a big fan of Michelle Obama and think she’s done a wonderful job in the fight against childhood obesity. Still, I can’t help asking, Is Michelle Obama inadvertently teaching her daughters to overeat?

According to The New York Times article, Obama Girls’ Role: Not to Speak, but to Be Spoken Of, Michelle Obama has quite a list of household rules including this one:

The girls have to eat their vegetables, and if they say that they are not hungry, they cannot ask for cookies or chips later. “If you’re full, you’re full,” Mrs. Obama said in an interview with Ladies’ Home Journal. “I don’t want to see you in the kitchen after that.”

I understand the rationale. No one wants their kids “gaming” the system. It’s infuriating that kids who are full when confronted with a pile of peas can be hungry when dessert, or after dinner snacks, suddenly appear on the scene.

I'm not intending to criticize or disrespect Michelle Obama. I think she's a great role model and that she's done a fabulous job raising her beautiful daughters—whom we've grown to love.

And, I know it’s tempting to put a premium on vegetable eating, especially when you’re the “Mom in Chief,” and the whole world is watching. However, to the extent that this strategy creates an environment conducive to overeating, I have to say it’s a mistake.

As I see it, there are three different overeating issues at play here:

For starters, it is possible to be (genuinely) full now and (genuinely) hungry later. Since Michelle Obama isn’t dealing with toddlers, who have to be taught to sit at the table long enough to eat an adequate amount, she doesn’t have to completely close the kitchen after meals. By doing so, Mrs. Obama risks teaching Malia and Sasha to (potentially) overeat at meals just to ensure they don’t get hungry later.

Of course, I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Obama is not really worried about whether her kids feel a little peckish sometime post-meal. No, she’s worried about what her girls are hungry for: cookies and chips. But curtailing Malia and Sasha’s consumption of sweets and treats is better handled by teaching them about what constitutes an appropriate daily portion. “You can have cookies or chips once a day. You decide when to eat them.”

The second problem with Mrs. Obama’s strategy is that kids should not have to eat their entire meal—i.e. be entirely full—before they are allowed to eat sweets and treats. Forget the fact that scads of research shows that using broccoli as a gateway kids have to pass through in order to get to their beloved brownies is a strategy that doesn’t succeed—Instead of turning kids onto vegetables, it makes kids dislike them even more—making kids eat dessert on a full stomach is a disaster.

How many children do you know who would voluntarily skip dessert because they’re full? Instead of teaching children it is appropriate and normal to eat dessert on a full stomach we should mindfully teach children to save room for dessert. Worried your kids will eat too much dessert? Work on portion size.

Finally, if the only parent-approved way Malia and Sasha can end eating, or more accurately, avoid eating foods they find offensive, is to say they’re full, it’s not surprising Mrs. Obama worries they’ll learn to lie. Indeed, an incentive to lie is built right into the system.

To be honest though, I’m not that concerned about Malia and Sasha lying to their parents. I want them to be honest with their parents because they need to be honest with themselves. When kids become disconnected from their own internal hunger and satiation cues, there is a risk they’ll start to overeat. Then, that risk is one that lasts a lifetime.1,2

Raising a generation of healthy eaters takes more than a hardline approach. Pitting vegetables against desserts, even with the best intentions, is a strategy than never works.


1. Carper, J. L., J. O. Fisher, and L. L. Birch. 2000. “Young Girls' Emerging Dietary Restraint and Disinhibition Are Related to Parental Control in Child Feeding.” Appetite 35: 121-29.

2.Tribole, E. and E. Resch, 2003. Intuitive Eating: a Revolutionary Program That Works., Vol. 2nd Edition. New York: St. Martin's Press.

© 2012 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.


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Dina Rose, Ph.D., is a sociologist and the author of the book It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating and the blog It's Not About Nutrition.