Parents who exert too much control over what their children eat may not be doing their adolescents any favors when it comes to controlling the youngsters’ weight, according to the latest study.
Researchers report in the journal Pediatrics that pressure from parents to clean plates or to restrict eating high-calorie foods such as sweets and sugared sodas may not help teens to maintain a healthy weight.
The analysis included two studies of 2,231 students, with an average age of 14 years old in Minnesota, and 3,500 parents. The scientists assessed how moms and dads influenced their teens’ eating habits by rating their responses to statements such as, “My child should always eat all of the food on his or her plate” or “If my child says, ‘I am not hungry,’ I try to get him or her to eat anyway.” The parents also provided their views on statements such as, “If I did not guide or regulate my child’s eating, he or she would eat too much of his or her favorite food.”
Overall, parents of obese children were most likely to report that they needed to make sure their kids were not eating too many high-fat and sugary foods, while parents of nonoverweight kids were more likely to think their adolescents should eat all the food on their plate at each meal. Dads were more likely to pressure their kids to clean their plates, and adolescent boys tended to be pushed more than girls to eat more.
While such attention to children’s eating habits is certainly laudable, and parents are presumably guided by the best intentions, the results suggest that overly restrictive supervision of eating habits could backfire since such excessive control could actually increase, rather than reduce teens’ weight. Changing perceptions of normal weight may be playing a role in some of the parental pressure, while ballooning portion sizes may actually make some of the clean-plate advice unhealthy for adolescents. “I was surprised at some of the parent behaviors, like feeling that their children should clean their plates and not waste food,” study author Katie Loth, a registered dietician, doctoral candidate and research assistant at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, told HealthDay. “In the 1950s, cleaning your plate meant something different. Portion sizes have gotten bigger over time, and if you encourage kids to rely on environmental indicators, like how much food is on their plates or the time of day, they’ll lose the ability to rely on internal cues to know whether they’re hungry or full.”
In addition, he says, parents who impose eating habits on their children may be doing their youngsters a disservice since they discourage the teens from learning how to respond to their own hunger signals. Instead, the youngsters may use metrics such as cleaning their plate, regardless of how many calories weigh it down, or cutting out certain foods entirely, which studies show could lead people to compensate and even overeat by seeking more calories from other, potentially unhealthy foods.
The best advice? It’s a familiar refrain, but the scientists recommend that parents allow their children to eat all foods in moderation, and adopt other practices known to maintain healthy weights, like making sure there is a good supply of healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grain snacks in the house, and eating dinner as a family in order to teach children the importance of eating a diverse menu of foods in moderate amounts. While they seem simple, setting such an example of good eating habits may do more for keeping adolescents at healthy weights than more intrusive restrictions or rules about what and when to eat.