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Why controlling what our children eat does more harm than good

It’s normal  and considered sensible to have food limits and judgments on what our children consume, and people will commonly praise, affirm and nod approvingly when we do so.   But are we doing more harm than good with this approach?  Will it really lead to our children having a healthy relationship with food? In most households certain food is labelled as ’junk’ or ‘healthy’, and the ‘junk’ is then restricted, or completely eliminated.  However, what is interesting is that nutritionists can’t even decide what constitutes healthy – current popular diets include Weston Price, No Grain, High-Fat, Low-Fat, Low-Carb, Whole Foods, Vegan, Organic, Raw, Atkins, Zone ( I could go on)  – so if the ‘experts’ don’t know how can we?  

The best judge of what is healthy for a person is the individual themselves, regardless of age.  Being able to listen to our bodies, eat when we are hungry, stop when we are full, and enjoy our food without shame is a great gift and one that so few of our children will grow up to experience. What our bodies need changes over time; toddlers often gravitate towards a high-dairy diet, pre-teens to high-fat, and pre-menstrual women to high-sugar.  Leafy greens and tofu may be great for one person but cause digestive problems in another.  That is not to say we can’t have our personal beliefs on what constitutes a healthy diet but they are just that – personal.  Our children aren’t us, and the more negative impact our beliefs have on our children’s lives, the less they’ll find them attractive.  They may come to believe what you believe about food but the more pressure, restriction, and guilt you put on them, the less likely that is to happen.

One of my 25 year old friends told me recently how her mother raised her with all kinds of so-called ‘super healthy’ foods – green vegetable smoothies that she HAD to drink every morning.  No soda, fast food, or sugar – EVER.   She said when she left home she went ‘wild with food’ and felt guilty and ashamed as she knew her mother would be upset.  She said for many years she made a point to never eat anything healthy as a reaction to her upbringing.  

In comparison, my own children eat a wide variety of foods and, most importantly, they are totally in tune with their bodies.  They eat what their body is ‘asking’ for at that time, they recognise what makes them feel good and bad, and they only eat when they are hungry, and they stop when they are full.   I think this is really cool, and a recipe for maintaining a healthy weight in adulthood.  I try to do this myself but still have to fight my  ‘inner-script’, stemming from my own childhood, which reads like, ‘don’t snack between meals’, ‘eat your greens’, ‘certain foods are for certain times’, ’clear your plate’, ‘everyone should sit down together to eat’, ‘don’t eat too much sugar or fat’, ‘organic and local are best’…and so on.  To my kids, and thousands like them without food controls, food is just food and they eat really well.  My teenage daughter, unlike many of her friends, loves crunchy salad, chicken, pasta, chocolate, bread, cereal, cheese, curry, most fruits, and – her absolute favourite – strawberries, which she eats by the bowlful.  

So often our parenting is dominated by fear. With food, the fear is that our children will grow up obese and/or unhealthy unless we control and limit and restrict them.  The reality is that the opposite is true.   Providing a wide variety of choice, and enjoying ‘food as food’  joyfully with the people you love most is a good place to start to ensure a physically and emotionally healthy relationship with food for your children — and yourself. 

I would love to hear what your thoughts and experiences are surrounding this issue.  Do you have fear surrounding food?  What restrictions do you place on your children, and with what results? 

- Chaley


Chaley-Ann Scott

About Chaley-Ann Scott

Chaley-Ann Scott is a parenting author, sociologist, counsellor, and mother-of-four. She writes widely on parenting and education for various publications, and is the author of The Shepherdess; A Guide to Mothering without Control.

Comments (30)

I agree with everything you've said. However, I think knowing what is really in food these days is good cause to be scared. Perhaps teaching our kids about how the food system works, and what all those ingredients are and where they come from is a good place to start. When we educate ourselves and our children we can shed the fear and make good choices. I thinks its best to talk a lot about all the food we eat and what's available and be honest about how gross some of it is. I think it's good to be animated about it too; like when we pass heavily dyed cupcakes with frosting at the grocery store and say "eeeewwww! look at all that food dye!" or when mom passes up the chicken at the supermarket and says out loud "I won't buy that chicken because it's not grown well. We'll buy the pastured chicken from the farmer's market." Speak out loud and voice all your decisions so your kids know WHY you think some foods are bad to eat. And why some foods scare the hell out of you. They'll get it.
I would agree with some of this, but it's easier to "lay off" the kids when all the food on the table is stuff you're comfortable feeding them without limits. I too was very picky and went crazy on candy with my "lunch" money, but as an adult I gravitated back to the healthy food choices, they taste good because I got used to them in my youth. Now I am forming my own opinions on what "healthy" food is, i.e. no processed foods etc, but I let the kids follow their appetities in terms of how much/whether to eat. I pick the what/where/when of eating in the household, then we just eat without lectures or portion control (except dessert which is single serving when we have it). Ellyn Satter calls this the "division of responsibility" in her excellent feeding guide "Child of Mine." I don't limit their food choices at parties, special occasions, or with school-provided snacks though, I think moderate indulgences will hopefully prevent guilt and uncontrollable cravings for "off-menu" items.
What do you do when your children only want to eat foods that make their health and behavior worse? My daughter begs for cheese. After having it, pink circles are severe under her eyes and she's prone to a meltdown. My son's autism was very much abated by a diet devoid of wheat, dairy, sugar and crap. If I had not set the restrictions I have then one child would probably be on meds and the other might have ended up institutionalized. I'd wager that more kids in today's America are affected behaviorally by food than not. I'd love to give my kids "whatever" but I feel that would be abuse.
I get your point - I don't buy the dyed cupcakes either, but I find it obnoxious to be shopping in the same vicinity as someone making this type of negative commentary. It teaches your child to complain about food. What's to stop them from saying this exact thing at the next birthday party they are invited to attend?
where portions and timing are concerned I agree with you, beyond that not so much. Given the option of eating precisely what they wanted whenever they wanted most kids would live on apple juice and cupcakes/ candy. I let my son decide what he wants within reason, but i'm also not about to make extra work for myself by preparing separate meals for him. I think its important to share as many meals as a family as possible, but there is nothing wrong with allowing a child to eat only a bite or two if he isn't hungry. My philosophy is snacks can happen anytime up to 20 minutes before a meal, Everyone gets what i make but eating is optional. I insist that my son taste what is on his plate, but once that first bite is in its entirely up to him how much or little he chooses. I don't make a separate meal, and if he wants a snack later i just make sure the snack is something nutritious. There is definitely an upside to limiting processed and sugar laden foods, beyond that sure let them eat whatever, but its really not ok to let every meal or snack be comprised of donuts and hotdogs.
I agree totally that the key is education and support the idea of sharing the responsibility as Juniper mentioned. I too have kids that react poorly to specific foods. Not allergies, I don't think, but definitely intolerances. Dairy and certain fruits. So I do place limits on those things. That's my responsibility as their mama. I talk to them a lot about where foods come from and how they're made/produced. They help me make our bread and have visited the farms where our veggies come from. I also have taught them to pay attention to how foods make them feel. They are very much aware that 'you are what you eat'. All that being said, they do still ask me for ALL the garbage (mainly things with tons of food dye and high processed snack foods) when we go to the grocery store and I believe that they are going to have to try those things for themselves and make their own decisions. I won't buy those things though. ;)
I have tried to teach my kids moderation. I try to keep healthy food available but we get "junk" sometimes too. I agree with the article I feel that if there are taboo or off limit foods our kids will be drawn to them. Moderation is healthy, elimination can lead to unhealthy views of food. We also expose our kids to all types of ethnic foods that some people may view as ick. I hope they grow up to be well rounded human beings. :)
Thank you for this post. I constantly struggle with this. So much of the food out there is marketed to kids to make them think that it is good for them or that it is fun or that others eat it and so should they. The kids absolutely do not recognize that the food is causing them problems. For a few months I was willing to pay for whatever my kids put into their carts. (We can afford it and if we couldn't then I would have discussed a budget. Since I don't have a grocery budget, why should I impose one on them.) At first they bought a balance of sugary stuff and fruits. Then they gradually went straight for only sugary stuff. My daughter quickly began gaining weight and my son was tired and scrawny. I could endure it no longer. So now I will buy them anything that has 12 grams of sugar as the total amount in the entire package. 12 - 17 grams of sugar is the maximum total amount recommended for consumption by a child in a day. They also get $1/day and can spend that on bags of sugar if they would like. They don't though....ok...once my daughter did. But she hasn't again, even though she could and there wasn't a negative remark made. I don't say anything about sugary stuff at parties, except, "You really are enjoying that yummy cake." I am absolutely authentic and focus on the joy they are experiencing. I am well aware that they may go berserk when they grow up and live on pop tarts and candy bars. I hope that because their frontal lobe will be fully developed that they will be able to make the choices that are indeed right for them. I will continue to try to let go and let them have true freedom.
My oldest son, like me, has terrible tooth genes. I got a little too relaxed about the amount of sugar he was consuming and he ended up having his first root canal at the age of 5. Growing up, my guardians let me eat whatever junk I wanted and now I'm missing many of my teeth, which started getting pulled at the age of 14. My mouth structure is permanently changed from the missing teeth and it will require $50,000 of reconstructive surgery to fix it. Being allowed to eat fast food and junk for every meal did nothing to help me have a healthy relationship with food. It programmed me to eat only that. It made me unhealthy and unaware of how diet affected my life. I didn't start trying to eat nutritional food until I had a child of my own and decided that I didn't want my kids to grow up as sickly as I was. After the root canal, we banned all juice and candy from the house, and my kids have adjusted. They know they only drink water and (occasionally) milk now. If they want treats, they can have my homemade ice cream or pure fruit popsicles, and they're totally fine with that. I think this is going to set them up to make much better choices in the future, curb the amount of damage done to their teeth.
I would agree, but in the case of food allergies, the body often craves what is worst for it. Food allergies are unlike any other allergy. Allergic to wool? You don't desire to roll naked on a ski sweater. Allergic to bees? You don't run around raiding hives. But, allergic to dairy or sugar or peanuts and I bet you crave them.
Its all about balance people.
I agree with the sentiment here but as others have expressed I worry that it's too easy to do harm to ourselves with all the non-food items marketed as food out there now. But I will admit that I felt deeply concerned when I heard my 3 year old tell her cousins "no, I'm not having that. We don't eat chicken." If it had been chicken prepared at home I probably would have told her to go ahead and try some. But it was frozen (but organic) battered chicken fingers so I didn't want her to get her first impression of chicken in that salty, processed form. We always try to explain our food choices to her and get her to pay attention to how she feels after eating different foods. She will probably have a rebellious junk food stage, but she will know what good food tastes and feels like and would hopefully gravitate back towards it.
I think you have some great points and I think it's easy to write about this when you don't have kids who have allergies or behavior issues connected to food. Sure, if your kids are healthy, sleep well, and appear for the main part unaffected- great!! But please don't make this a right or wrong thing, it's just not applicable to everyone.
In a society in which 2/3 of our population is obese or at risk for obesity, and, therefore, lifelong disease or illness, it is impossible to not be aware of and regulate, to some degree, what our children are eating. In the wide, wide world of romantic fast foods and sugar, preservative, GE, artificially flavored and colored laden food options, there has to be some sort of regulation of consumption. The corn, wheat and soy industries have ensured that our store shelves are rife with high calorie, low-nutrition foods. Our school lunches are made by the lowest bidder. Our nutritional education is archaic and uninformed. Our farm fields are devoid of nutrients. Fruits and vegetables are considered by the Government to be a luxury crop. So, unless we start in our own homes educating, modeling and healthily consuming, where will our children learn. That doesn't mean we have to live an "all or none" lifestyle, but teaching our children skills for making good food choices throughout their lives is an integral part of their healthy (mind, body, spiritual) upbringing.
I agree whole heartedly that some kids can not tolerate certain food and feeding them that food anyways would not make for a responsible parent. My son had non-stop seizures for four months and tried 6 different meds before we found out about the Modified Atkins for Seizures diet, he's been on that and now the GAPS diet for the last two years and has not had another seizure! I do think we shouldn't make a big deal about food and how much they choose to eat or not eat, but I feel strongly that we have to be very aware of what foods work or don't work for our kids, and that we offer healthy choices. I believe there are many children that could be helped through diet if their parents were aware of that, for many different things, behavioral issues being the often over looked one.
Carlin, I agree 100% with you, it is just not applicable to everyone, and parents who don't do this, because they can't due to health reasons with the children, shouldn't be made to feel guilty about it!!! I like what you are pointing out, if your kid is not affected negatively by this sort of free for all diet, then by all means do what works in your family... But I do feel that some parent don't know to make the connection between behavioral issues or even some health issues, and diet. My sons seizures where cured through diet alone {Modified Atkins for seizures and then the GAPS diet}... not many people know about that.
I agree!!! Great comment Kristi! I know that some kids when they are raise in a strict healthy food environment go a little crazy on the junk food when they are finally out on their own {I was one}, but I've also seen those same people come back to a healthy life style and stick with it after making those poor choices for a while {again I was one}. So in my opinion, even if my kids do go a little crazy for a while when they are grown and making their own food choices, I feel confident they will go back to healthy choices. Over all I feel that is better then them eating junk their whole life. Especially because growing bodies need healthy nutritionally dense foods for a good start in life. A whole balanced diet, where food is not made an issue, but the junk is left out for the most part makes for a good eater. :) People are always amazed by what my four will choose to eat... even at a party where other options are available. We are not always super strict with the food, when we are out I do allow the kids to make a lot of their own choices {except my son who is on a special diet} because I don't want them to obsess on what they can't have, but because they rarely have it they often notice on their own that the "junk" food doesn't make them feel very good. That is something you don't notice when you are eating it all the time. Our children need a strong building block of what healthy eating looks like, and even if they don't always choose it, they still have that foundation to come back to. I feel we do have a responsibility to teach our children healthy choices for a healthy lifestyle. :)
I agree with some of your points. However...this "western diet" can be blamed for a lot of diseases, conditions, cancers, obesity, you name it... I am teaching my daughter how to grow her own organic veggies, how to eat fresh and unprocessed foods (with lots of flavor i might add). We use whole ingredients, often raw when possible, because they offer the most benefit. I dont hold back sugar or fat, i allow it in moderation which is pretty much key i think (moderation). I try to use alternatives to sweeten (agave, honey, maple syrup) and of course we eat out on occasion and buy the less shitty processed foods - usually organic or all natural. I dont feel like doing these things is at all ever going to be harmful...to me it is the opposite...im trying to do what i can so my child has a long and healthy life. Look at the research on dyes, pesticides and all that non-food they put in "food"...come on...i dont want to eat that crap and i sure dont want to serve it to my kid. When my daughter grows up she can make her own decisions about how to eat but for now i would like to try and encourage her to learn about fresh food, where it comes from (not just from a box or grocery store) and how to cook and make it tasty. Its one thing to be super anal crazy and completely deny anything you think could be harmful until your kid turns 18 but to say that we should just basically give up on eating how we feel is right bc our kids might one day binge on twinkies and root beer seems a bit out there. I say do what you think you should... i do! I know i wont regret it.
I didnt read your comment before making my own reply but I completely agree with you. Well put.
Hi FB Try looking up the Weston A Price protocol for tooth issues. Several friends have changed their families' bad dental health for good!
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