Little Eaters

Unfinished Muffin – photo by Anton Walker

Recently, I’ve been reading Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, provocatively subtitled, “Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.”  I’m finding it a bit of a slog but overall worthwhile and have been particularly intrigued by his comments on children’s eating habits.

Kohn claims that children have a remarkable capacity for self-regulation when it comes to eating.  He states that parents are often responsible for overriding the natural inclination of children to eat what they need, when they need it.  Our role as parents, Kohn maintains, is to provide healthy choices and step back to let our children choose when and how much to eat.

…young children will usually consume the number of calories their bodies need over time. Sometimes they’ll go for days eating so little that we become concerned, and then they suddenly put away huge portions. If they eat something fattening, they’ll tend to eat less, or something less caloric, afterward. In terms of how much they eat, then, children seem to have a remarkable capacity for self-regulation.

I’ve been impressed at our son Anton’s ability to eat just what he wants and leave the rest – even with ice cream and other sweets.  We try to resist encouraging Anton to finish all that he’s been given – although I still try to get him to eat something to provide sustenance before he moves on to desert – “perhaps a few more bites of dinner first?”  I realize though that I need to learn from Anton’s example of stopping when full, as I tend to clear everything on my plate plus what is left over on his.  Unfortunately, my body is storing away the extra calories and apparently I’m ready for a long hibernation this winter.

The next big diet craze – The ‘Eat like a 4-year old’ Diet?  I think it might work but clearly most people wouldn’t lose weight on what a 4-year old would eat if given free reign to choose whatever they wanted.  Kohn isn’t suggesting that parent’s should be permissive about what children eat – just when and how much they eat.  It still starts with learning to make healthy choices and teaching our children to forsake those colourful containers of sugar and corn syrup that get poorly disguised as food.

With the exception of avocado and mushroom Anton is willing to try pretty much anything we eat.  We don’t deny him junk food but it is a very small proportion of his diet and of our own.   I think we’ve managed to set a good example on that level.  However, when it comes to getting in touch with my own body’s cues about being full I have some work to do to set a better example of healthy eating.

It’s been interesting to consider the research that Kohn refers to.  He describes the work of two nutritionists in Illinois who observed 77 children between the ages of two and four, and also recorded the level of control that their parents attempted to exert over the children’s’ eating habits.

They discovered that those parents who insisted their children eat only during mealtimes (rather than when they were hungry), or who encouraged them to clean their plates (even when they obviously weren’t hungry), or who used food (especially desserts) as a reward wound up with children who lost the ability to regulate their caloric intake.

The research suggests that children who are not given opportunities to learn to control their own food intake may stop trusting their bodies’ cues about when they are hungry and thus be at higher risk of obesity.  I looked into this a bit further and found a literature review titled Parental Influence on Eating Behavior (by Jennifer S. Savage, Jennifer Orlet Fisher, and Leann L. Birch).

The authors describe factors shaping the development of children’s food preferences and eating behaviors during the first years of life.  They were interested in looking at eating habits passed on from previous generations (habits that may have been formed in response to times of dietary scarcity such as during WWI, the great depression, and WWII) and the impact of those habits during conditions of relative caloric abundance, such as we find today in nations like Canada and the US. They sought to identify patterns of food intake which contribute to accelerated weight gain and obesity.

Here are some of their conclusions:

  • If we want children to learn to like and eat healthy foods such as vegetables, they need early, positive, and repeated experiences with those foods, as well as opportunities to observe others consuming those foods.
  • The natural tendency of children to prefer sweet or salty, caloric rich foods over energy-poor but micronutrient-rich alternatives highlights the need for adult intervention to provide a varied and healthful diet.
  • Caregivers play a critical role in determining which kinds of foods will become familiar to their children – from the foods kept routinely in the cupboard to those served regularly at the family table and even those consumed away from home.
  • Evidence regarding the poor nutritional quality of table foods infants and toddlers are consuming as they transition to the adult diet reveals a need for parental guidance regarding the importance of offering healthy foods, avoiding restrictive and coercive feeding practices and serving as positive models of eating behavior for their infants and young children.
  • Although children possess an innate ability to self-regulate their energy intake, the extent to which they exercise this ability is determined by environmental conditions: for example, offering large food portions, calorically rich, sweet or salty palatable foods; the use of controlling feeding practices that pressure or restrict eating; and the modeling of excessive consumption can all undermine self-regulation of energy intake in children.
  • Traditional child feeding practices, which involve promoting children’s intake, can be maladaptive in the current food environment where food surfeit, obesity, and chronic disease have replaced food scarcity and infectious disease as major threats to children’s health.
  • In the current context, feeding strategies that are responsive to children’s hunger and satiety cues and which encourage children’s attention to hunger and fullness are needed to support self-regulation.