A few months ago, I received a text from my daughter, who was a senior in college at the time. A close friend and classmate of hers, who spent a lot of time in our house during their high school years, was giving a speech about why it was OK to keep “junk food” in the home, as my family does.
Knowing that I was a dietitian/nutritionist, she was particularly interested in my point of view on the subject.
I responded that in order for kids to develop a healthy relationship with these foods and to learn when and how to eat them, they should not be completely off limits. Kids who grow up in houses where they have restrictions tend to overindulge when they are allowed to eat junk food or are around it. They may even eat more than they want and actually feel sick because they have not learned how to eat those types of food in moderation. Also, when foods are labeled “bad,” they become forbidden fruit and are more tempting.
Studies have demonstrated that deprivation leads to unhealthy weight changes. In one study, adult males were put on a low-calorie diet for six months. Post-study, participants stated that food became the sole focus of their daily lives, and that while they ate normally pre-study, post-study some overate, to the point of becoming ill. Studies have also shown that preschoolers with restrictions on snack foods (those deemed less healthy) at home ate more of those types of foods and felt guilty about their intake when they were exposed to these foods outside the home. In addition, restriction of less healthy food has been linked to poorer eating habits and higher weight in children.
One of the positive consequences of exposure to “less healthy” (what many refer to as “junk”) foods is that it can lead to what is known as habituation: The more you are exposed to a food, the less interested you become in eating that food (particularly if that food has been off limits).
Of course, this is a fine balance. In many cases, parents have the best intentions when they restrict foods they correctly view as unhealthy. The goal is to consume foods that are nutrient-dense, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, protein and dairy foods.
While we may be able to keep an eye on what our children eat at home and what they take to school for snacks and lunch, there are many opportunities for food exposure elsewhere—birthday parties, summer camp and playdates, to name a few. When my children were younger and they had friends over, it was easy to spot the kids who did not have access to so-called “less healthy” foods in their own homes. Many of them would spend much of the playdate in our kitchen, at the snack drawer, eating the foods that were likely restricted to them. Foods that have been labeled as “bad” very often become even more tempting—psychologically, we crave what we are not allowed to have.
This article is not meant to endorse a steady intake of highly processed, high-fat or sugary foods, but rather to acknowledge that they are ubiquitous in our society and that we need to develop strategies for how to reduce the appeal of these foods.
Here are a few ways to encourage a realistic and overall nutritious diet without making the “other” foods more tempting.
Avoid characterizing foods as good or bad. Rather, use the terms “healthy” and “less healthy” to describe food and beverages.
Try to implement the “90/10 rule” (90% of intake is from nutritious foods, 10% from foods kids consider “treats.”)
Engage your children in a discussion and explain to them why the foods in the targeted 90% of their diet are more beneficial to them (they will provide them with more energy, help them grow and generally feel better etc.).
Embrace the reality of the 10% by working with your children to identify items within the broad category of less-healthy foods that are acceptable to all of you.
If you do choose to add the less-healthy options in your home, be prepared for initial increased consumption of these foods. Studies have shown that this should taper off soon as they lose their appeal.
While this approach may not work for everyone, it can help your children learn about balancing healthier and less-healthy food intake and help them make overall better choices. As parents, it can help give you peace of mind that you’ve provided your family with practical tools for an even healthier relationship with food.
By Sharon Wieder
Sharon Wieder, RDN, MIEP, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and mindful and intuitive eating practitioner. Her private practice focuses on the nutrition and wellness of children and teens. She can be reached at 201-314-8545 or [email protected]