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.
The Many Faces of Restriction
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.
The End Goal
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 self-regulate 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.
Every Child is Different
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.
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.
Food as a Battleground
When food is restricted, many children begin to see it as a battleground. Imagine the child who constantly wants a certain food or more food but cannot have it. He builds up frustration and possibly negative associations with eating, satiety and consumption. Children do not want to be controlled by their parents, yet they are — we make them sit in a car seat, go to bed, take out the garbage, turn off the technology. By age 2, children learn that food is one thing they can control and win.
If you are constantly at war with your child over food, your child will start to associate eating with stress, and perhaps begin to harbor feelings of guilt and shame that they want food you do not want them to have. When a child finishes every family dinner angry and ashamed, you have lost. When a child finishes every family dinner satiated physically and emotionally, you have won.
How to End the Restriction
If you identify with any of these issues, then make 2018 your year to rethink restriction. Here is how:
1. Adopt Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility” where parents decide what, when and where food is served, and children decide how much and whether they eat these foods. This means you must allow your children to keep eating whatever you serve even when you are pretty darn sure they are no longer hungry.
2. Designate meal and snack times so that eating has structure.
3. If you and your child are at war over food, you must remove the conflict. Stop restricting, at least temporarily. Allow sugary foods into the house (with some structure, of course). As you ease up and assure your child that you are no longer trying to control them, they will back down from their own fight.
4. Give your children control, such as what to pack in their lunch, how much of a certain food they will put on their plate and eat, next week’s dinner menu, and which snacks you will buy.
5. Designate a drawer in the house for sweets, decide how many times a day or week your family indulges in these sweets, and then give your kids the choice as to what to have and when. If the food is in the house, and kids know they can have some, they won’t feel as desperate to gorge. Remember, the goal isn’t to prevent your child from ever eating sugar, it is to teach them to eat it in moderation.
6. Tell your kids about your new plan and structures, that you will stop trying to control their food intake because you want to help them learn to listen to their bodies.
Feeding kids is not easy. I have made so many mistakes, which my kids will be happy to shout from the rooftops. But a new year signifies a new start, so let’s take it. I am kicking mine off with a box of Pop-Tarts.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday January 4, 2017.