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.