January 9th, 2013

More from the obesity police

Dr. Natalie Muth, author and expert in childhood obesity, has some advice for parents who want to avoid starting their kids along the road to overweight:

[She says that] a common parental practice that could lead to childhood weight gain is the “clean plate club.” When parents require their children to eat everything on the plate, kids then lose the ability to use their own feelings of hunger and fullness to decide how much to eat. “And that habit stays with that child for their whole life,” says Dr. Muth.

I beg to differ. Strongly. In my family we were never told to clean our plates, because we pretty much did that anyway. We were what is known as “good eaters” (plus, the food was usually pretty darn tasty). And we continued to be good eaters; we just like food.

Same thing with various other families I’ve observed. I also know quite a few people forced as children to finish the food on their plates against their will, and it had the effect of making them less likely to eat up as adults, not more. They were picky eaters then, and remain picky eaters now (and not all of them are thin, either, although some are—and some in the “clean plate” club are skinny. So there.)

Dr. Muth doesn’t cite any research on this (although she might in her book, I suppose). I suspect, however, that there isn’t any.

And then there’s this:

How parents try to get their children to eat vegetables may also lead to problems down the road. A classic mistake that parents may make is to tell their children that if they eat the vegetables, they can then have dessert. All of a sudden, the dessert becomes a reward.

“It starts early, with our preschoolers. We set them up to rely on food-usually unhealthy food-to make them feel good,” notes Dr. Muth.

All of a sudden, dessert becomes a reward? But most children need no encouragement whatsoever to figure out that sweets “make them feel good.” I love vegetables, but there’s just something about sweets that make them almost irresistible, although I must resist. I well remember watching my son take has first piece of candy; I think he was about two and a half or three at the time, and when he put it in his mouth his whole face lit up in a new way. Although there is indeed a certain small percentage of people who don’t like sweets (I’ve even known a couple of them), for most people it’s love at first bite.

And I wonder whether Dr. Muth is familiar with this sort of thing:

“We know that the newborn can detect sweet and will actually prefer sweeter solutions to less sweet ones. The basic biology of the child is that they don’t have to learn to like sweet or salt. It’s there from before birth,” explains Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

Unlike adults, who often find overly sugary things unpleasant, Mennella says kids are actually living in different sensory worlds than adults when it comes to basic tastes.

“They prefer much more intense sweetness and saltiness than the adult, and it doesn’t decrease until late adolescence. And we have some evidence they may be more sensitive to bitter taste,” Mennella says.

A reason for this may be that a preference for sweet, caloric substances during rapid growth may have given children as an evolutionary advantage when calories were scarce. That notion is supported by the fact that sugar doesn’t just taste good to children -– it actually makes them feel good, too.

Mennella’s research has shown that sugar is a natural pain reliever in children…

I also wonder whether Muth has ever tried saying to kids “eat your dessert, and then you can have your vegetables” and seen how many children consider those veggies a reward and the dessert a laborious chore. My guess would be: not many.

15 Responses to “More from the obesity police”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    “Dr. Muth doesn’t cite any research on this ” Nor will she. On her page she states: “She has authored over 50 publications and book chapters,”

    Anyone counting book chapters is already a phony.

  2. Mr. Frank Says:

    You know you are well into adulthood when you go for the vegetables first at a meal.

  3. Lurch Says:

    I consider it immoral not to eat all the food on my plate. I think of all the plants and animals that had involuntarily given their lives to nourish my body. To toss their remnants into the garbage does them no honor.

  4. Inkraven Says:

    A lot of it depends on what the parents put on the plate.

    No one ever got fat eating a whole bag of carrot sticks.

  5. Jim Nicholas Says:

    Yes, I did hear about the starving Armenians. What I left on my plate was served to me at the next meal. It was not done to encourage me to eat more but for reasons of frugality. I learned to serve myself less.

    Even now when I am not serving myself–in a restaurant or as a guest–I am very reluctant to leave anything on my plate.

    When I complained that I did not like something, I was issued a challenge I could not refuse: ‘When you grow up you will like it.’ I had to pretend I was a grown-up.

    Earning dessert was never an issue; we had dessert only on Sundays, if then.

  6. holmes Says:

    We know so little. Viruses and bacteria are blamed. I’ve read recently that each person could respond differently to a particular food- tomatoes, potatoes, even broccoli, etc, which causes weight gain. But that doesn’t preclude people from trying to enact a one-sized fits all (ahem) policy. I think Glenn Reynolds has it right; it’s not about health for most of these people. They just don’t like having to look at fat people.

  7. Oldflyer Says:

    Dr Muth sounds like a lot of experts who assume that they will be believed because, well because they are experts.

    Our government is full of people like that.

    As an expert–newly annointed, and self-proclaimed–I believe that there are a great many conflicting influences on diet, and by extension on weight control, or non-control. Since the marketing and advertising forces come down on the side of “buy more, eat more” the result is probably foregone.

    Without any scientific evidence, I have become very concerned about the ingredients in all food that is processed, packaged, canned, etc. I would really like to avoid anything with ingredients that I cannot pronounce. It is hard. Unfortunately, my dietician, chef (wife) has become enamored with processed, quick preparation foods. I suspect that such is the case with most domestic food preparation persons these days.

  8. Kae Arby Says:

    Jim Nicholas,

    I grew up under similar circumstances. When I was old enough to fill my own plate, I was explicitly told that I could take as much as I wanted but that I had to eat all that I took. The reason was simple; food costs money and when you throw away food you were throwing away money. If the food remained in/on the serving dish, it could be put in the refrigerator (or freezer if there was enough left over) and served another day. Once it was on your plate, it had to be either eaten or thrown away (for obvious sanitary reasons.)

    As for eating our vegetables; there was a rule that we could not leave the dinner table until we finished our vegetables, which my two brothers learned the hard way (they hated cooked peas and carrots and would do almost anything to avoid eating them. As for me, I learned how to choke down foods that I didn’t like because, heaven knows, I wasn’t going to get any sympathy from them.)


  9. RandomThoughts Says:

    Kae Arby, RE: “When I was old enough to fill my own plate, I was explicitly told that I could take as much as I wanted but that I had to eat all that I took.” Your parents and mine must have known each other. That was exactly the rule at our dinner table. And we always had to eat a serving of veggies.

    I’ve raised my own kids the same way. It must not have been a toxic method of child rearing as none of my kids are overweight, and none are picky eaters. Eldest daughter is quite adventurous with food (she’s eaten jellyfish, of all things). For what it’s worth, she also is a pastry chef, which profession the obesity police would no doubt frown upon.

  10. waltj Says:

    The older I get and the more I see, the more I think the food nazis have no freakin’ clue what they’re talking about. They’re making it up as they go along. So, I plan to keep doing what my mother told me many years ago before I went off to college and had to eat dorm food: eat a balanced diet, avoid most fried foods, be sparing with desserts, and watch portion size. That’s worked well for me for 40 years, so I don’t see any reason to stop now.

    Having lived overseas for a number of years now, portion size is the thing that shocks me when I come back to the US, especially in fast-food places. In keeping with my idea of a healthy diet, I don’t go to them often, but when I do, usually when I’m on the road, I’m amazed that a “small” drink looks like an extra-large did 15 years ago. Same thing with the fries. I have no use whatsoever for Bloomberg-style food legislation, but I can see where nanny-staters like him get the idea to limit drink sizes.

  11. parker Says:

    We had no hard and fast rules at the dinner table. Rule 1 was take what you think you will eat, you can always take more if you’re still hungry. Rule 2 was eat vegetables and fruits first. Rule 3 eat animal flesh last. Rule 4 desserts are for special occasions like birthdays, easter, thanksgiving, and Christmas. When you are eating at other people’s homes you may eat dessert but only after you have finished everything else.

    All 3 kids, ages 31 through 40, are all healthy, slim and fit. They all cook real food and they enjoy a wide variety of cuisines.

    Obesity is a complex issue. Its definitely part genetics, some of it is based on unwise food choices and quantities. Lack of exercise is a factor. I would assume tension and anxiety can play a part. But overall experts do not really know why some are obese and others are not. Perhaps a place to start is with food stamps by strictly regulating what types of food may be purchased.

  12. expat Says:

    I don’t remember any rules for eating. I do remember I went through a period (a few weeks?) when I wouldn’t eat egg whites; then a period of egg yolks only. My mom went along with it, and then I ate the whole egg. Basically, we all ate what was put on the table. Desserts were rare, but not vilified, and we practically never ate out.

    We were very connected to food production. We gathered wild berries and morels. Thanksgiving was hog butchering day at my grandfather’s. We made apple butter every year at my aunt’s, where I also sort of helped my less feather-phobic cousins gather eggs. We canned tomatoes and other vegies and picked apples. Nobody ever talked about calories or transfats.

  13. THURSDAY GOD & CAESAR EDITION | Big Pulpit Says:

    […] More from the Obesity Police – Neo-Neocon […]

  14. holmes Says:

    Until my mid 20’s, I was able to eat practically anything I wanted to. I was always thin or skinny really. When my, now wife then girlfriend, and I started dating, she would put on weight because she ate as often and at the times I did (sometims at midnight). Then I took a desk job and the weight started to escalate a little (for me anyway). Now I just need to exercise several times a week and stay away from too many carbohydrates, especially processed sugars. This is uninteresting of course, but just to add to the flavor of the comments here 🙂

  15. daisy Says:

    My family was too poor to waste food. If it was on my plate I had to eat it. I did once tell my mother to please send my spinach to Africa via UPS. That didn’t go well.

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