— Beth Oden, 48, a Boulder, Colo., mother of two small boys, is on a mission against junk food. When the boys, ages 7 and 5, are offered sugary or high-fat treats at school or in goodie bags at parties, she has them collect the unacceptable items in a Tupperware tub to bring home for the “junk food witch.” She takes the container of food away overnight and, in the morning, there will be a toy from the “good witch” for the boys.
Her younger son has a gluten and dairy intolerance, but she also encourages the older boy to call her from junk food-laden parties so she can advise him on what he should and shouldn’t eat.
Suzanna Quintana, 41, keeps cookies and chips out of her home and packs her three children’s school lunches with fresh fruits and veggies. The Sheridan, Wyo., mom believes that processed sugars and artificial additives lower immunity and inhibit learning. Quintana has pushed to get processed foods removed from her children’s school cafeterias, but her anti-junk food activism hasn’t been popular.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them whisper ‘food nazi' when I’m around,” says Quintana.
Driven by concern about childhood obesity or other food anxieties, more nutrition-focused parents are turning into food cops, monitoring every morsel their children eat. They not only refuse to allow sugary snacks in their own homes but also fight to ban fattening foods from school lunches or childhood parties. For them, every cupcake becomes a potential future health crisis.
Their preoccupation with their children’s diet is understandable. Rates of childhood obesity have soared in the U.S. in recent years, with about one-third of kids currently considered overweight or obese, according to government reports. Being overweight puts children at risk of long-term health problems such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, as well as depression and poor self-esteem. But when parents go overboard, it can lead to unnecessary family battles and future eating problems, child psychologists and nutritionists warn.
“Yes, there is an obesity crisis, and you should be concerned about what your kids are eating, but being too absolute about it will backfire,” says psychologist Edward Abramson, a professor and childhood eating expert at California State University, Chico. “When parents become too intrusive, especially as children get older, there is a battle of wills. The more the parent says, ‘You can’t eat that,’ the more the kid says, ‘Just watch me.’”
In fact, a recent study found that being too restrictive about the foods children eat can cause more weight gain. Researchers from the Center for Childhood Obesity Research at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, found the highest weight gain among girls who considered their parents most restrictive about eating certain foods. The study tracked 200 girls for 10 years from age 5.
Over the line?
Even when parents are vigilant about limiting junk foods in their homes, kids grow up surrounded by fast food and high-calorie snacks loaded with high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats. But nutritionist Andrea Giancoli believes that allowing only “good” foods like fruits and vegetables and banning “bad” foods can actually inflame kids’ desire for the forbidden goodies. “They’ll go to a friend’s house and pig out on junk,” she says.
Giancoli also objects to making little Johnny eat all his carrots and peas before he can have a cookie. “What research finds,” she says, “is that the reward food becomes more desirable in the child’s mind, and certain ‘good foods’ become increasingly despised.”
Kids whose parents are too intrusive about their diets can also risk peer ridicule. The child who unpacks carrots and organic granola may face taunts from kids scarfing down potato chips.
“Whatever minimal nutritional advantage might be gained by not having one cupcake will be more than offset by the embarrassment caused by a mother’s interference — or feeling like an outcast for not participating in the party,” Abramson says.
Finding a balance
Concerned parents can find the balance by encouraging healthy attitudes about eating, but not absolutely banning any particular food, except when there are allergies or other medical concerns. Giancoli offers some suggestions:
• Banish the clean-plate club. Avoid requiring a child to eat all the healthy food before getting any dessert, as made famous by Pink Floyd in the line, “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding.” Instead, Giancoli advises placing the entire meal before the child — cookie included — and letting the child decide what and how much to eat.
• Educate children about nutrition. The more parents inform children about how certain foods benefit their bodies, the more likely kids are to eat them, says Giancoli. “And this gets easier to do as kids get older,” she says. “They start caring more about how their skin looks and how much energy they have.”
• Be a role model. Children are imitators of their parents, says Abramson. And when it comes to diet, they tend to follow what their parents do. Accordingly, he advises eating healthfully with your child, but not obsessing over what you and your child do and don’t eat. “So if your kid isn’t eating her veggies, a good tack is for you to eat your veggies and say, ‘Yummy, yummy,’ ” says Abramson. He also advises parents not to openly diet and deprive themselves of food. Kids who witness their mom or dad struggle with food can develop unhealthy relationships with “bad foods” and end up with their own weight issues. Mealtimes should instead emphasize hearty, healthy eating and togetherness, Abramson says.