When I was little my mother was told by health visitors that I was far too fat. I was two years old and hadn’t started walking. My mother wanted to do the right thing and as it was the seventies she was advised to restrict the amount I ate and to replace ‘fattening’ foods with lighter alternatives. I was given margarine rather than butter and the amount of potatoes, bread, puddings and sweet things I ate was closely watched. As I got older I was determined to reset the balance and get my hands on the wonderful things I felt had been denied me. I was the little girl that stood close to the food table at social events helping myself whilst the other children played. I was the ‘seconds’ girl at the school pudding counter and I was ‘Rolo’ girl to the newsagent.
So when I was looking through the recent research on obesity and children I was unsurprised to find that there are strong associations between parental restriction of foods and overeating In particular the research suggests that children with low impulse control are prone to overeating the very foods that are restricted. Unfortunately providing unlimited access to treats doesn’t redress the balance. Research also shows that these same children (with low impulse control) overeat calorie dense, non-nutritious foods in families where it’s freely available and where there is no restriction.
This leaves parents with no well defined options. It appears that the label ‘low impulse control’ is given to most of the children who overate in these studies. If you accept that your child has ‘low impulse control’ (described helpfully as a ‘genetically based behavioural tendency’) you might conclude that the odds really aren’t stacked in their favour. Restrict particular foods and your impulsive child will overeat them (when given the chance). Don’t restrict foods and your food keen child will overeat anyway.
Thankfully my experience has shown me a different picture. There are many ways in which we can help children to balance and adjust their eating. This holds whether they hover around sweet treats ready to finish the whole plate, or simply have a tendency to pass over healthier food with the result that their diets consist mostly of empty calories.
This is what you can do:
The best way to move away from restricting children’s intake of certain foods is to have a simple, predictable, and cheerful routine around food. When children know what types of food and snacks will be available and what the routines are, they relax. They aren’t watching for food they might miss out on or having to nag for or sneak food. This does not mean that there aren’t surprise treats but give them context (someone special visiting / a very sunny day out on the weekend etc).
Another way to give them control is to get them personally involved. My children love to choose and prepare their own snacks at certain times of the day. I help them to get the foods out of the cupboard, chop them up, and lay them out. Although they are choosing from a healthy selection, their sense of control and pride is obvious.
As a psychologist, one of my main motivators around food and eating is that my children enjoy the social aspect of food. Sharing food, enjoying food together is a very healthy and enjoyable thing. If children are at a party or a social gathering and there is a lot of cake and sweet ‘treat’ foods then I do my best to relax and let them get on with eating whatever they like. Of course if these sorts of occasions happened everyday then your response would need to be different. But for a special party children love to be part of the group. It’s perfectly lovely and caring to show them a carrot stick and pop a tomato on their plate but after that I don’t tend to worry (as a parent of course I worry but in the words of the song I “let it go”!).
I’ve begun to talk with my four year old about different colour foods and how they help different parts of our bodies. She is very interested in this and has quickly taken to the idea of counting the amount of different coloured food she has eaten during a meal. We have a book on the body and we make very basic (often probably quite incorrect) links between foods and the body parts they help. I talk to her about her little tummy and making sure it has room for different types of foods so it can do a good job of helping her body.
This last point is the most important. Our care and concern that children develop healthy, rewarding and balanced relationships to food can become exasperation and control. When we respond to overeating with heightened anxiety or shaming, children stop thinking clearly about food. They become impulsive and hasty and avoidant.
A basic rule of thumb is that difficult situations around food need to be dealt with calmly and gently and with as much honest respect as you can muster. If you feel cross and frustrated with a child then wait for that to pass. Sit with them later, when you are both calm and relaxed, and make a simple plan together so they can work with you, have fun and enjoy eating.
I think back on my childhood and the stress and anxiety my eating and weight caused my poor parents and I compare what we knew then to what we know now. With our understandings of health and balance let’s make sure our children have the opportunity to love food and eating.
If you find these ideas interesting and would like to know more then why not contact me for a consultation or click below to find out about my upcoming workshops on children’s eating
WORKSHOPS ON CHILDREN'S EATING
 See for example Rollins, Loken, Savage, Birch (2014). Maternal controlling feeding practices and girls’ inhibitory control interact to predict changes in BMI and eating in the absence of hunger from 5-7 years. Am J Clin Nutr (99); 249-57.
 Rothbart MK, Ahadi SA, Hershey KL, Fisher P. Investigations of temperament at three to seven years: the Children’s Behavior Questionnaire. Child Dev 2001;72:1394–408.