Restrictive Feeding Practices
In a world concerned with childhood obesity, you may be wondering exactly how you’re supposed to prevent or control your child’s weight or weight gain.
If you are thinking about putting your child on a diet, limiting second helpings, purchasing fat-free or low calorie snack foods, or removing all sweets and “junk” foods from the house, then you are considering what researchers call restrictive feeding practices. Or, in common terms, food restriction.
What is Food Restriction?
Food restriction, or restrictive feeding practices, can show up in several ways. For example, limiting the food types your child is allowed to eat (for example, no sugary foods or only fruits and vegetables) is one way where food may be tightly controlled.
Or, controlling portions, or amounts of food your child eats (no seconds or only extras of vegetables) is another common way parents may restrict food.
Perhaps there is a certain manner in which your child must eat certain foods, or maybe you adjust the energy content of foods (fat-free, sugar-free, or low calorie) to make sure your child doesn’t overeat.
Food restriction may be overt or it may be subtle.
What Prompts Restrictive Feeding Practices?
I think fear is a big culprit.
When a parent is worried about their child’s eating or weight, they may look to control food.
The parent may limit portion sizes, the types of food they bring into the home, or adjust the energy content of foods.
The irony of food restriction is that it is largely ineffective. And, it can backfire.
This happened to Rachel, a 9 year old child who was overweight. In an effort to prevent further weight gain, her mom hid or removed all the sweets and “junk food” in the home. Rachel started to sneak food and overeat at school events and at friends’ houses. She became overly focused on food, sneaking it when mom wasn’t around, and over-indulging.
Sneaking food and overeating it may be side effects of being too restrictive in your feeding.
Why Do Parents Restrict Food?
Food restriction –and why it happens — is complicated. Research highlights two main areas that are tied to restrictive feeding practices: worry about a child’s weight and worry about the child who is a big eater.
Worried About Weight?
A 2010 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that mothers who were concerned their child was overweight were more likely to use restrictive practices when feeding their child.
Though food restriction wasn’t the cause of weight gain, a concern about a child’s weight may trigger restrictive feeding practices.
Worried About Eating?
Does your child have a large appetite or is she out of control with eating (for example, eats too fast, or enjoys eating too much, in your opinion)?
This aspect of feeding children was investigated by Webber and colleagues in a 2010 Journal of the American Dietetics Association article. They found that children with large appetites or aggressive eating tendencies elicited more restrictive feeding practices from their mothers.
Outcomes of Food Restriction
Practically, and from experience, I believe that children who are tightly controlled (restricted) in their eating may perceive food as a battleground. To want food and not get it can be unsatisfying and hard on a child over time, drawing out undesirable food behaviors and potentially contributing to the development of unhealthy eating habits.
Are You Restricting Food?
Sometimes it can be hard to recognize food restriction within yourself. Many parents believe they are doing the right thing, and aren’t sure of any other way to help their child.
Check Your Intentions
If you’re not sure you are restricting your child’s eating, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “What are my intentions when I limit second helpings/hide all sweets/buy diet products?”
Understanding your underlying intentions and your worries will help you determine if you are simply trying to make sure everyone at the meal table gets a fair shake at each meal item, or if you are trying to prevent your child from over-eating, controlling his weight, or getting him to eat what you want: the spinach.
What is Your Child’s Perception?
Put yourself in your child’s shoes.
How would you feel if your boss told you that one piece of chicken was enough? Or your spouse told you that you should watch how much dessert you are eating (I think we all know how that would go over!)?
It’s important for children to leave the meal table satisfied, physically and emotionally. Reassuring your child that he can fill his belly with the variety of foods at the table can quell some of his worry, and ultimately his unhealthy actions.
Sure, parents have the job of teaching children how to eat well and that can be best accomplished by setting a good example and a great table. And, you can model positive behaviors you would like to see from your child, like balancing all foods in the diet.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to pick out the food and prepare it, and your child to decide how much and which foods they eat.
Do you have a story to share about food restriction?
1. Webber et al. Associations between child weight and maternal feeding styles are mediated by maternal perceptions and concerns. EJCN 2010: 64; 259-265.
2. Webber et al. Associations between children’s appetitive traits and maternal feeding practices. JADA 2010: 110; 1718-1722.