Food Restriction: What it Really Does to Kids

Food Restriction: What it Really Does to Kids

Over the years, I have encountered families who believe they need to control, tightly limit, or restrict the food their child eats, especially if their child is a big eater or carries extra weight. This is called food restriction and while it is well-intentioned, it may cause more problems for the child and the family down the road. 

No doubt, feeding kids is one of the greatest responsibilities a parent has, and perhaps the most repetitive, challenging, and mundane chore.  Our society’s obsession to be fit and trim is increasingly imposed upon our children. We, as parents, are faced with confusing and conflicting messages about proper feeding, healthful foods, and optimal levels of nutrition.  

Some of us may respond to this evolving and lofty standard of perfect nutrition with the only thing we can think of doing: tightly controlling food, or food restriction. To make sure we give kids just the right foods, in the right amounts, so that they get every nutrient they could possibly need. If this is accomplished, our kids will be just the right size and shape, well-nourished, and feeding will be struggle-free. 

Sound familiar?


What is Food Restriction? 

I hinted to this earlier, but I want to dig in a bit more. In a nutshell, food restriction involves controlling every little bite that goes into your child’s mouth. Controlling portions (think pre-portioned plates or “snack packs,”) purchasing diet, low-calorie, or fat-free foods, limiting second helpings at the dinner table, or even forbidding certain foods from entering the home or the family diet.

These are all signs of food restriction, also known in the research literature as restrictive feeding. This practice, on a regular basis, can lead to a backlash of children who lose sense of their hunger and fullness, tend to overeat (often away from the watchful eye of mom and dad) when they are unrestricted and who may develop an “obsession” with the foods that are limited or forbidden from their eating pattern. 


Kids may feel deprived when they don’t have the freedom to choose and ultimately be in charge of what and how much they eat. I’ve also encountered kids who were restricted in their eating and were truly hungry– hungrier than their parents thought they were. 

Research indicates that restrictive feeding doesn’t work for our children and may promote overeating.  Most interestingly, these studies not only link restrictive feeding practices to weight gain, they also link a parent’s perception of their child’s weight to restrictive feeding. 

In other words, if you think your child is “big,” eating too much, or gaining weight, you are more likely to be more controlling — even restrictive — with every little bite she eats. 

And like adults, kids want what they can’t or don’t have–it’s human nature. Take away the candy, and kids can’t stop thinking about it. However, unlike adults, kids have less control over their biological drive to eat. 

Food Restriction: What it Really Does to Kids

What Happens when Kids Experience Food Restriction?

Food restriction can be a set-up for “overeating on the sly,” uncontrollable eating when the restricted food is allowed or available, and undermining a child’s sense of appetite regulation.  In a nutshell, restriction can cause all sorts of problems with eating. 

Choosing WHAT we feed our children will always be important to their ultimate health. WHAT we feed really matters.

But, perhaps we need to pay more attention to HOW we feed our kids. Remember, providing an abundant table of healthy food is both satisfying to the eye and to the tummy. Feeling hungry and being able to satisfy that hunger is more than a full belly–it’s emotional fullness, too. And maybe feeling emotionally and physically full is what it takes to stop a backlash of overeating in our children.

Have you had any experience with food restriction (yourself or your child)? How did it play out?

I’ve discussed this on The Nourished Child podcast in episode #29. 

P.S. If you want to put your hands on the book that will take you through the HOW of feeding and other feeding practices that undermine your child’s eating abilities, you can nab Fearless Feeding in my Nutrition Store.

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate links, which means that if you decide to purchase something in the Nutrition Store, I will receive a small percentage of the sale, which will help cover the costs to operate this blog. Thank you!

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  1. I’ve never blogged before and this looks like a good place to start! Thanks, I look forward to reading more in my “spare” time.

  2. I love your holistic approach and last line. I believe that to get to the root of many of our eating problems, we need to address the emotional component. Many of us are emotional eaters! It is just as important to be nourished emotional as physically. Parents need to be just as aware of their children’s emotional state as physical. Excellent point you make!