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Parental Food Policing Impacts Kids’ Weight

April 25, 2013

Talk about a counterintuitive headline — “Parental Food Policing Impacts Kids’ Weight” is definitely among the top contenders.

Food restrictions are common among parents of obese adolescents, while pressure to “clean their plates” is common among parents of normal-weight kids, researchers found.

The study goes on to explain how complicated the relationship between restrictive food parenting can be:

The relationship between parental restriction and child weight is likely to be bidirectional; that is, whereas high levels of food restriction have been shown to lead to an increase in child weight status, parents of overweight and obese adolescents are more likely to adopt restrictive parenting practices in an effort to help curb their child’s food intake. Results from a small number of studies indicate that parental restriction often precedes excess weight in young children, suggesting that the bidirectional path begins with parental use of controlling feeding practices; this exposure then leads to weight gain over time for the child and creates a feedback cycle in which both food-related parenting practices and the child’s excess weight gain persist across time. [emphasis mine]

So parents of fat children are micro-managing their kids’ diets in order to keep them from becoming fatter or to help them lose weight? It seems rather odd to me that parents would be doing this at all, at least on a widespread scale, especially since, according to some prominent childhood obesity experts like Dr. Joanne Dolgoff, most parents of fat kids don’t think their kids are fat.

But according to this research it’s not just overweight kids who are affected:

On the other hand, pressure-to-eat was highest for adolescents who were not overweight compared with overweight and obese adolescents (P<0.01), they wrote online in the journal Pediatrics.

Wait a minute. What’s this? In a society that’s obsessed with being thin, and is obsessed with ending “childhood obesity,” parents are still making their kids clean their plates, whether the kid is hungry or not? Really? So are parents really that worried about their kids becoming fat or not?

The authors noted that food-related parenting habits, such as “encouraging children to eat and restricting intake of palatable foods,” have been shown to significantly impact children’s weight outcomes in prior research.

What ever happened to feeding a child and letting them decide when they’ve had enough to eat? What ever happened to having a wide variety of foods on hand from which children can choose? Maybe if we quit worrying so much about whether or not our kids are going to get fat, and worked more on making sure that our kids had access to affordable, healthy foods more often, and concentrated on their health instead, we wouldn’t have to have this “war on childhood obesity.” We could let our kids be kids, and they wouldn’t have to worry if they had the “right” kind of body or weighed the “right” amount. The authors agree:

The results “may be counterintuitive for some parents, making it necessary that physicians and other healthcare providers educate and empower parents … to promote healthy eating by making nutritious food items readily available within their home, modeling healthy food choices, and encouraging their adolescent’s autonomy in self-regulation of food intake,” the authors concluded.

“Parents are doing way too much in controlling the way kids eat,” commented Elaine Schulte, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital in Ohio, who was not involved in the study.

Parents “need to back down in terms of the way they are helping children figure out how to eat,” she told MedPage Today. “When you’re a teenager, you don’t want to be controlled; parents need to help regulate what their children put in their mouth, and it’s not by telling them what to eat.”

She agreed with the authors that parents should offer healthy foods in the home; allow children to participate in food purchasing; and teach, rather than enforce, behaviors through role modeling healthy diets.

Now how on earth do they expect that physicians and other health care providers are going to “educate and empower parents … to promote healthy eating by making nutritious food items readily available within their home, modeling healthy food choices, and encouraging their adolescent’s autonomy in self-regulation of food intake” when most of those doctors/health care providers are so stuck on telling parents their kids are fat and need to go on a diet? It’s the medical community that’s reinforcing parents’ decisions on how/what/how much to feed their kids, and changing those decisions has to start with educating the medical community first (good luck with that, BTW). How are parents going to “model healthy food choices” when they’re also being told by their doctors that they need to go on a diet/have WLS in order to become thinner?

Sorry, people, but you can’t have it both ways — wanting parents to not micromanage their kids’ diets and telling them there’s a “childhood obesity epidemic” that needs to be ended.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth permalink
    April 25, 2013 1:20 pm

    Great piece, vesta. Having been on the receiving end of food policing, I know it contributed to my many years of sneak eating, dieting, etc. Most of us have had parents with emotional problems, and I think this has a lot to do with micromanaging children’s food intake. When your life is out of control, guess what? You can (try to) control everything that goes in your kid’s mouth! And these days you’ll get kudos for doing your part to fight the “childhood obesity epidemic.” When I was 16 years old, 5’6″ tall, I weighed 160 pounds and I was made to feel the size of a blue whale. I hope someone gets a laugh out of that, I sure do!

  2. April 25, 2013 3:57 pm

    This is something as a parent I have seen a lot in terms of ‘eat it all up’, and also debates (mainly in parenting mags I used to read) about ways to encourage children to ‘eat it all up’, and in one case a ‘revolutionary’ article suggesting children can eat just fine if we leave them to it. Haven’t come across parental restriction irl thank goodness!
    Having said all this I don’t think we can assume that this is a universal parenting trait or that parents are ignorant about the best way to feed their own children.

  3. Rubyfruit permalink
    April 26, 2013 1:12 pm

    I’ve been on the receiving end of both types of food policing. “Be sure to empty your plate, because Starving Children in [insert far away country here] don’t have anything, so be grateful”, and right after that “That piece of cake is too big, split it with your sister, no, you take the smaller piece”. It’s part of the brain scramble one gets when one is raised with a mother who is both an Evangelical Christian and fears fat to an extent that she sometimes buys whatever new super-miracle fat-zapping whatevers, and lived in a church environment where a lot of the women in attendance used fasting as a justification to diet.

    • vesta44 permalink
      April 26, 2013 9:41 pm

      Yeah, I got this too when I was a kid. “Clean your plate, there are starving kids all over the world who would love to have the food you don’t want.” and in the same breath be told how fat I am and how I’m such a pig (and I wasn’t the one who put the food on my plate either). The disconnect between those two thoughts didn’t even occur to my mother, either.

  4. April 27, 2013 10:09 am

    Food policing was so literal in my house that as children, my sister and I made our father a hat and whistle and badge that said “FOOD POLICE” and had a slice of pizza in the crossed-out-circle thingy. This hint, while hardly subtle, did not achieve its desired effect.

    This stuff makes me fucking enraged. Because god knows my parents aren’t malicious. They are terribly anxious, and not particularly self-aware, but they love their children more than anything in the world, and it’s not like they did this to us on purpose. They thought they were doing a good and necessary thing. I wish they’d been more insightful, that they’d cared about how we felt while having dinner more than they’d cared about how they thought we’d feel if we got fat, but tons of people were telling them that only an irresponsible parent has a fat kid, and my father had experienced that pain himself, so was really phobic. The childhood obesity panic is hurting children. Including making them fatter than they’d otherwise be. It just seems so obvious, and at the same time like such an uphill slog to change the consensus. All gratitude and glory to those who are doing the hard work here.

  5. May 4, 2013 11:46 pm

    Interesting how misguided everyone is….

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