Just say yes

Telling kids they can't eat junk food only makes them want it more.

August 29, 1999|By Eric Adler | Eric Adler,Knight Ridder/Tribune

"Mommy, can I have some candy? Can I have a soda? Can I have some ice cream?"

"No," you say, convinced that in denying your child junk food, you're promoting proper eating habits and doing your child good.

Well, Mom, hold on to your cookies. Recent research indicates otherwise.

According to two studies led by Penn State nutritionist Jennifer Orlet Fisher and published this summer in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the journal Appetite, restricting a child's consumption of junk food is more likely to cause a child to want junk food that much more and, most significantly, to eat more of it when the opportunity arises.

"Basically," Fisher said, "we were interested in looking at the age-old question of whether children want more of what they can't have."

The answer, the studies show, is yes.

One four-week study looked at 37 preschool children. Over the course of the study, the children were given wheat crackers and Pepperidge Farms' Gold Fish crackers to eat during their 15-minute snack time. The children were allowed to eat as much of either cracker as they liked, which they did.

After two weeks, however, Fisher changed the experimental conditions. During the 15-minute snack period, the children could still eat as many wheat crackers as they wanted, but the Gold Fish were restricted. The children were told they could eat the Gold Fish crackers for only five minutes of each period. They could see the crackers but weren't allowed to touch them.

The result was that in those five minutes, the children practically devoured the Gold Fish, eating 20 percent more than before.

Fisher's conclusion on restrictions: "We think it might have the opposite effects parents intend it to have. It increases the desire to obtain and eat those foods."

Indeed, in a second study of 71 preschool boys and girls, published recently in Appetite, Fisher first gave the children's parents a questionnaire about how restrictive they were regarding 10 foods, ranging from cookies to ice cream to popcorn to candies. She found that those children, primarily girls, whose parents who were most restrictive ate more of those junk foods when given the opportunity, compared with children whose parents were less restrictive.

Finally, in a third study yet to be published but presented last month to the Society for the Study for Ingestive Behaviors, Fisher looked at the effect of restrictions on 158 5-year-old girls. She found that girls whose parents are most restrictive not only ate more junk food when they had the opportunity but also felt significantly worse about themselves afterward than did girls whose parents were less restrictive.

The point: There's nothing wrong with watching what children eat and making sure they eat well. But if you're looking to promote good dietary habits, moderation and judicious choices may be better than strict rules.

"It [strict restrictions] may work in the short term," Fisher said. "But later when children are able to make their own choices, restrictions may have negative effects."

Restricting some foods "increases the desire to obtain and eat those foods."

Jennifer Orlet Fisher -- nutritionist

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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