The Fries that Bind

This article was originally published in February 2002

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by Marika McElroy

As a fifth grader, Melanie Waters (not her real name) joined Weight Watchers of her own accord. By junior high, she was sneaking her mother’s Dexatrim. In fact, until recently, the 31-year-old computer programmer continued to struggle to control her food intake. Her weight yo-yoed and she oscillated between strict diets and overindulgent binges.

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Melanie didn’t develop her propensity for dieting in a vacuum. Her dad, a jogger, was perpetually fit. “He could eat dessert and it wasn’t a big thing, so we’d eat it with him. He would make comments like ‘Do you really think you need that much?’ So there was always a guilt thing associated with eating too much,” she says. Her mother operated differently. “My mom was constantly dieting,” Melanie recalls. “In fifth grade I might have been a little chubby, but I didn’t need to be that worried about dieting.” And she and her siblings always had to clean their plates — dishes filled with a Texan diet heavy on red meat and butter — to get dessert.

It has long been recognized in academic and medical circles that children with parents who diet constantly (like Melanie’s mom) are likely to become chronic dieters (like Melanie) — creating a recipe for maladjusted metabolism and weight problems.

A newer concept is the notion that some common parental practices, namely restricting kids’ access to certain foods, could foster equally unhealthy habits that follow kids into adulthood. For parents, a few simple adjustments to mealtimes (and attitudes) can make a big difference; for adults who are living with the repercussions of restricted diets, reverting to childhood instincts can uncover healthier eating habits.

The forbidden (non)fruit
The cookie jar on a high shelf, out of reach of little hands. The clean plate club. Fulfillment of a lima-bean quota before dessert. These timeless means of guiding kids’ food intake are second nature to many parents — a legacy of diet restrictions passed from generation to generation. However, according to recent studies, these seemingly benign methods of coaxing kids to eat right can have the opposite effect.

Dr. Jennifer Orlet Fisher, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Baylor College’s United States Department of Agriculture Children’s Nutrition Research Center, has studied how diet restrictions affect children’s attitudes toward food. Her findings suggest that when parents limit kids’ access to foods at the top of the pyramid — those “energy dense” treats such as potato chips and cookies — they create a “forbidden fruit” allure surrounding these foods, which can lead kids to eat them whether or not they’re hungry.

Parents can restrict childrens’ diets in a variety of ways: using dessert as a bribe to get kids to eat vegetables; putting snack foods out of reach; limiting the amount of food a child can have; or getting upset when the child eats “too much.” But, Fisher reminds us, it seems reasonable for parents to clamp down on their children’s snack-food intake.

After all, today we have unprecedented information about nutrition and health, including a surfeit of data that makes it clear kids’ diets need help. The Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health have documented steadily rising numbers of overweight children and adolescents. What’s more, between 1994 and 1996, fried potatoes accounted for one third of vegetable consumption in children ages 2 to 19 years. Moms and dads are justified in worrying their offspring will join a growing nation of portly french-fry munching kids.

In a study that followed girls over a two-year period, from ages 5 to 7, Fisher found parents who restricted their children’s diets wound up with kids who tended to eat snack foods whether or not they were hungry. In a separate 1999 study that measured 3- to 6-year-old’s responses to specific food restrictions, Fisher and a colleague discovered restricting kids access to snack foods increased their behavioral response to the foods. That is, children tended to focus more on foods that were actively restricted. In effect, limiting kids’ access to “palatable” foods teaches them to eat when said foods are available, rather than when they are hungry. “The intended lesson of moderation is lost on them,” Fisher says.

Similarly, parents who require children to finish their broccoli to earn dessert — an age-old trick for coaxing kids to eat their veggies — send the wrong message. “It devalues the broccoli,” Fisher says. “It makes dessert more of a reward than it should be.” Broccoli, she posits, should be worth eating in its own right, rather than being acknowledged as a distasteful means whereby the dessert, in its over-inflated glory, may be garnered.

While data on the connection between these early eating patterns and overweight or obesity later in life is not firmly established, Fisher thinks the link is likely. “We believe that children who learn to initiate eating when they are not hungry and continue to eat past fullness are at increased risk for the development of overweight,” she says.

The key to preventing kids from developing these patterns — and to teaching adults like Melanie how to reverse them — lies in relinquishing control. For parents, this means letting kids decide what they’ll eat; for adults, it means giving control back to the body’s intuition.

Masters of their Romaine
Imagine coming home from work hungry, tired and aching for a good meal. You sit down to eat, and your spouse insists on serving you the meal — let’s say it’s spaghetti. He dishes up your noodles and starts ladling on the sauce. You tell him when to stop, but he says, “That’s not enough sauce. You need more.” Your partner proceeds to drench your noodles. You feel a bit miffed, but start to dig in anyway. The dish just doesn’t taste good swimming in sauce, so you push it away. “You’ll just have to eat it,” your husband tells you. “That’s what’s for dinner.”

As preposterous as this sounds, this scenario often plays out between parents and children at mealtimes. The missing element is a sense of control on the child’s part. Adrienne Dorf, a nutrition consultant for Public Health Seattle and King County, advises childcare providers on feeding kids — a process that often takes some un-learning on the provoders’ part. “Many of us grew up being told that you have to eat the food on your plate; you don’t have a choice,” Dorf says. She often follows principles outlined in Ellen Satter’s book “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense” (Bull Publishing Co., 2000). Among these is the “division of responsibility” between adults and children at mealtimes. An adult’s responsibility is to cook and serve nutritious food that is appropriate for their childrens’ developmental stages, make mealtimes pleasant, guide kids in proper table manners and serve as a role model by eating well. Children must decide how much they want to eat and even — as difficult as this may be for parents — if they’re going to eat it at all. “Parents can’t make kids eat,” Dorf says. “They need to let go.”

Children need to learn there is a place for every kind of food in their diet: If they’re going to be exposed to those at the top of the food pyramid — fats, oils and sweets — they need to understand how to incorporate them into their diet (for tips on introducing new foods, see sidebar below). Parents should promote a range of healthy foods. Rather than stating whether foods are “good” or “bad,” speak in terms of whether a certain food is appropriate at a given time. For instance, it might be fine for children to have a cookie before going outside to play, but before bed probably isn’t the right time for a sugar bomb.

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Children knows best
When it comes to portion control, many adults could take gastronomic pointers from the toddlers of the world, especially adults who eat when they aren’t hungry as a result of a restricted childhood diet. Think about how 2-year-olds eat: They consume exactly as much food as is necessary to become full. This amount may vary from meal to meal, but intuition tells children when they’ve had enough. Nutritionist Jennifer Enich, M.S., R.D., C.D., sees many adults who have lost this intuitive sense of fullness. “A lot of my clients don’t feel hunger,” she says.

Enich tells her clients to hone in on their bodies’ signals that tells them when they’re hungry. Often, we have squelched this inner voice with louder voices that tell us what we should and should not eat, how much food is acceptable in one sitting and at what time of day meals should occur.

Restricted eaters often eat past the point of fullness. “It’s almost like they’re afraid they aren’t going to see food again,” Enich says. “It’s important to tell yourself there are grocery stores open 24/7. Food is always available; you don’t have to eat all of it right now.”

People who want to rediscover their hunger should take time to focus on the act of eating: Turn off the TV; don’t read; don’t eat while driving. It takes a while to re-establish a connection with your intuitive hunger, but your body gives you cues, such as little grumbles or pangs in your stomach when you need to eat.

Also listen to your cravings. “Some people have “forbidden foods” in their life,” Enich says. Whether snickerdoodles or salami, these are foods that people have learned to regard as inherently bad. It’s possible to learn to eat forbidden foods in moderation, if you listen to your cravings. Often, people who ignore cravings wind up eating two meals worth of food before they realize they really wanted a few bites of rocky road ice cream.

Melanie Waters is pretty familiar with this concept now. With Enich’s help, she’s in the process of reacquainting herself with hunger. While it’s still a struggle for her, she’s more in tune with her hunger, and recognizes when she is full. “I do that fairly regularly at restaurants now,” Waters says. “Restaurants in general give you too much food for one person, so I often split an entrée with someone.” She opts for walks with friends in lieu of social eating and she has stopped bingeing. More proof that when it comes to eating well, sometimes it’s better to act your shoe size than to act your age.

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Marika McElroy is a free-lance writer and editor in Seattle.

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