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Food-policing tactics common among parents of teens, U of M study finds

family eating
The best approach is to model healthy eating habits for children.

Parents often feel it’s their job to insist their child eat all the food on his or her dinner plate, even if the child says, “I’m not hungry.” Or they believe they must oversee everything their child eats to protect against the overconsumption of sweets and junk foods.

Both of these parental food-policing practices have been found, unfortunately, to be counterproductive, often leading children to develop unhealthy eating habits and to gain weight that they might not have otherwise.

Researchers have been trying to figure out what’s behind such parental practices so they can help families develop healthier relationships with food and, of course, help stem the growing obesity epidemic. More than one third of children and adolescents in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, a team of University of Minnesota researchers reported an interesting, although perhaps not all that surprising, finding: Parents are more likely to place food restrictions on teens who are overweight or obese, and they are more likely to insist teens “clean their plates” when the children are not overweight. Those findings cut across all racial, ethnic and income groups.

Interestingly, however, the study also found that fathers are more likely than mothers to pressure their children to eat more. That was especially true for boys.

“That was surprising,” said Katie Loth, a post-doctoral researcher at the U of M’s School of Public Health and the lead author of the study, in a phone interview Tuesday. “I had been expecting that moms would be more involved in the pressure-to-eat behavior than dads just because I think that [behavior] is more of a stereotypical role that we sometimes assume a mom might have.”

Involved Minnesota families

For the study, Loth and her colleagues combined data from two different studies involving more than 2,200 teenagers (average age: 14 years) and 3,400 parents. Both studies — Project EAT (Eating and Activity in Teens) and Project F-EAT (Families and Eating and Activity Among Teens) — are ongoing U of M research projects that have been surveying Minnesota teens and their families about their dietary and activity habits since the late 1990s. The surveys used in the current study were taken in 2009 and 2010.

The influence of the child’s weight on parental food-restricting attitudes can be seen in how the parents responded when asked whether they agreed with the statement “I have to be sure that my child does not eat too many sweets.” Among mothers of adolescent boys, for example, 63.2 percent of those with non-overweight sons agreed with the statement compared to 80.7 percent of those with obese boys.

The weight of the child had a similar influence on parental pressure-to-eat attitudes, as can be seen in the parents’ responses to the statement “My child should always eat all the food on his/her plate.” Among mothers of adolescent girls, 52.5 percent of those with non-overweight daughters agreed with that statement compared to 40.4 percent of those with obese daughters.

But fathers were even more likely than the moms to insist their children, especially their sons, clean their plates. Some 57.9 percent of dads said they believed their non-overweight daughters should eat all the food served to them and 64.4 percent believed their non-overweight sons should do the same.

Why the greater emphasis on sons? “I think that overall both moms and dads are more concerned about their boys weighing enough or being big enough,” said Loth. “That probably stems from cultural norms around wanting boys to be bigger.”

But because the fathers were also pressuring their daughters to clean their plates, other factors are probably involved, she added. “Dads may feel more responsible about their kids having enough to eat,” she said. “Or they may be exhibiting a higher level of overall control [over their children], and this is just one avenue that it’s coming out in.”

A better approach

The fact that a solid majority of both mothers and fathers in the study were involved in one form or the other of parental policing of their teenagers’ eating habits indicates just how strongly today’s parents want to control those habits.

But imposing such control is not a good idea in the long run. It’s likely to backfire.

Forcing children to eat everything on their plate “diminishes the ability of the child to know themselves when they’re hungry and when they’re full,” explained Loth. “And over time that can lead to the child gaining more weight then they might need to.”

A similar type of problem arises when a parent tries to regulate everything a child eats.

“The more a parent places severe limitations on eating sweets or eating snack foods, the more of those foods the child will eat when given the opportunity,” Loth said.

A better approach, she suggested, is to model healthy eating habits for your children. Keep only healthful foods in your home, and provide those foods at meals. But let your child choose how much of those foods to eat.

“It definitely can be hard for parents,” said Loth. “What’s important to keep in mind is to be actively involved in the same things yourself. So if you’re asking your child to eat more fruits and vegetables, you need to be doing that yourself, too.”

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Comments (2)

Food Policing

From about the time our children were 3, they were allowed to serve themselves, like the grown-ups. They were encouraged to take something from each food set out on the table. They were not required to clean their plates. Now at ages 33 & 29 neither are overweight.

Fathers and the "Clean your Plate Club"

I know in my family the refrain from my father was "I worked hard to pay for that food on your plate and you're going to eat ALL of it!".

Perhaps that's less true in this day and age when two working parents is more the norm, but that was definitely part of the dynamic that was at play in my upbringing and likely true for others of my generation as well.