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Parents: Beware of forbidden food

We want what's best for our kids, therefore we want them to eat well, but what's the best way to influence our kids' eating habits?

I believe in the importance of good parental role-modeling regarding food choices; We have to watch what and how we eat not only for our own well-being, but because our kids are watching!

I also believe that we as parents have the right and the duty to decide what goes into our pantry and on our table.

But when it comes to the issue of control over kids' food intake it gets a little more complicated. Well-meaning parents, consciously or not, often participate in some form of pressure or restriction to further reinforce what they see as good eating habits.

I devoted a previous post to the issue of pressuring kids to eat healthy — pressure includes common practices, such as prizes and coercion tactics — not cruel torture. I concluded that pressure is counterproductive, and is more likely to lead to decreased consumption of the target food (aside from fostering an overall unpleasant experience).

But what about restricting foods you perceive as unhealthy? Could prohibiting certain unhealthy foods from kids benefit their diet?

I'm sure most of you already have an opinion about the wisdom and fairness of such tactics, but I pulled out a few studies to see if we can look at this topic in a more evidence-based way before we get to that.

There are several studies showing a correlation between parents' restrictions on food and overweight and obesity; the more restrictions on food intake the higher the body-weight. In these studies one can argue that parents restricted food because the kid was getting chubby, and not the other way round. That's why I'll discuss two studies that actually perform an experiment, and don't just look at associated findings. Both studies were lead by Esther Jansen, a clinical psychology researcher and both were published in the research journal Appetite.

In the first study, 74 kids aged 5-6 years were recruited from six elementary schools in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. The researchers set out to test whether prohibiting snack foods elevates their desirability and consumption. The snack food was M&M's of the red and yellow variety, and crisps (chips in American), also in red and yellow. The snacks did not differ in taste, only in color (yeah, that red doesn't come from strawberries or cherries; it's just color).

The kids were randomly assigned to either a prohibition group, or a no-prohibition (control) group. Each kid was tested individually and answered questions about taste, satiety and desirability of the snacks. 

Four bowls were filled with measured amounts of the snacks.In the first phase of the experiment, the kids were left alone with the four bowls for five minutes, in which the prohibition group was instructed not to eat red snacks, and the control group kids could eat whatever they wanted. The bowls were then taken away and measured. The level of desire for the snacks was assessed between the two phases of the tasting experience. In the second phase, both groups of kids had five minutes in privacy in which they could eat whatever they wanted from the four replaced and measured bowls of snacks.

The desire to eat the forbidden red snack increased after the prohibition even though this prohibition lasted only five minutes. Kids that were forbidden the red snack also ate relatively more of it in the second phase once they could.

This raised an interesting possibility: If restriction creates desirability, can restriction be used for positive purposes? Can we make healthy foods more attractive by forbidding them?

That's exactly what the researchers set out to test in the second experiment. Seventy kids, aged 5-7 years were divided into three groups. This experiment followed much the same protocol of the previous one, but the four foods tested this time were pineapple pieces, banana slices, M&Ms and fruitgums. In the first phase, one group was prohibited to eat from the two fruit bowls, the second group was prohibited to eat from the two candy bowls, and the control group could eat whatever they wanted. In the second phase, all kids could eat whatever they pleased.

And the results? Kids in both the fruit-banned group and the candy-banned group ate more of the forbidden food during the second phase of the experiment. What's more, total food intake (and total calorie intake) was higher in the two prohibition groups compared to the controls, proving that prohibition indeed results in higher intake, not only of tempting unhealthy food, but also of food kids usually don't crave and fight over.

These studies support previous research showing that strict restrictions of foods lead to unintended consequences (many argue that The Prohibition in the twenties and early thirties increased drinking—or at least binge drinking—proving the same point).

What's a parent to do? As with many other issues of effective parenting, I think what we're all looking for is the middle ground between too much freedom, which isn't a good thing for a kid, and to much control, which usually backfires, leads to rebellion, and I personally feel isn't really fair!

A few suggestions I follow (none too strictly):

• Strive to make your home a sanctuary of nothing but healthy wholesome foods (by my definition that does include quality desserts in moderation).

• Try to provide as many of the meals your family eats.

• Don't worry about imposing your rules out of home. I don't dwell too much on what my kids eat at other people's home or about the snacks they're served at parties and sports events. Kids should know what their parents think, but then use their own judgment. I see with satisfaction that my kids often dismiss the typical after-soccer snacks and choose healthier options out of home, too.

• Provide an explanation for your objection to foods you think aren't good to eat.

• Make healthy eating so pleasurable and tasty that it would be self-evident that anyone would prefer it over fast food and junk food. It actually isn't that hard to do. If kids get accustomed to the great taste of quality real food, junk food will look more and more like the cheap imitation it really is.

And no, I definitely don't think we should prohibit healthy foods so that kids will desire them more: I'm against tricking kids.

Kids will need to eventually build up their own self-control. Empowering them with the knowledge and tools to do so isn't easy, but providing the control from the outside isn't the solution either.

Please share your experience, opinion and advice.

Dr. Ayala

1 comments:

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