Strict Diet for Kids Could Backfire

BySusie L. Morris

July 24, 2003 -- Parents who forbid their children to eat certain foods might want to reconsider that strategy.

That's because a new study finds young girls whose mothers are especially restrictive when it comes to eating are then most prone to engage in excessive snacking.

Researchers evaluated the eating habits of 140 girls between the ages of 5 and 9, along with the eating restrictions imposed by their mothers. Girls with food-restrictive mothers reported excessive snacking as compared to their unrestricted counterparts.

Girls already overweight at age 5 and subject to strict eating rules at home were also found to eat in the absence of hunger most often, a behavior that the study notes puts them at risk of long-term obesity.

"The girls whose mothers reported using higher levels of restriction when their daughters were 5 years old ate more in the absence of hunger at 7 and 9 years of age than did those whose mothers used lower levels of restriction," said the authors of the study, which was published today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study says the data is not necessarily applicable to both genders or all ethnic groups. But girls are more subject to the societal pressures to be thin and pretty, the authors suggested.

No Nagging

The ineffectiveness of food restrictions is no surprise to experts.

"They [eating restrictions] induce undue preoccupation with food," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in Derby, Conn., and author of The Way to Eat: A 6-Step Path to Lifelong Weight Control.

Such restrictions often promote insatiable cravings for food, said Marilyn K. Tanner, pediatric dietitian and study coordinator at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She said the phenomenon is not unique to children but can also be seen in adults.

"When parents attempt to restrict their child's eating, the emphasis is on the child, who correctly interprets the restrictions to mean, 'There is something wrong with me,' " said Katz. Restrictions instill the fear a child won't be able to eat when hungry, which causes overeating, he added.

Also, food rules undermine a child's self-esteem by creating a negative body image. "This, in turn, interferes with the relaxed confidence one needs to exercise good judgment and restraint" when making healthy food choices, Katz said.

Healthy Choices in a Culture of Consumption

Katz notes more than one-third of children in the United States are overweight and the number is growing. Tanner says obesity among children ages 6 to 12 has doubled since 1980, and tripled for those 12 to 19 years old. She said the obesity epidemic is not only common in girls but boys as well.

So what can parents do? Plenty. As the study shows, parents have a tremendous influence on their kids' eating habits.

To promote healthy food choices, Tanner recommends playing down the urge to obsess over eating. And make healthy foods readily available. When preparing a meal, "It's not 'Are you going to eat your vegetable?' It's, 'Which vegetable would you like?' " Tanner said.

Tanner also urges parents to focus on variety, balance and moderation, and to not make a big deal out of mealtime. "Don't reward children with food," she said.

Mealtimes are not rewards; they are just a function of living. And she said parents must follow the same practices themselves: "If you preach it, you've got to live it."

Katz concurred. "Most overweight adults are turning to quick-fix fad diets. There are unlikely to be healthful and often not even safe, so they are unwise to share with children. That puts parents in the position of 'Do as I say, not as I do,' which children simply cannot respect."

Other experts agree that setting a good example is key. Helping children to make healthy food choices depends on the availability of healthy food options and the ability of a parent to make healthy choices themselves.