A few years ago, I attended a seminar focused on helping people to end obsessions with food. One of the examples that the presenter used has always stayed with me. She described a young girl who was obsessed with M&M’s. She wanted to eat them all the time. Her mother was beside herself having tried everything she could think of in an attempt to keep the child away from M&M’s. The harder the mother tried, the more the child wanted them. The recommendation from the presenter, and the message throughout the seminar, was to allow the child the food she wanted without restriction and when she trusted she could have them whenever she wanted she wouldn’t be so obsessed.
The suggestion was to give the child a pillowcase with lots and lots of M&M’s in it and let her bring it with her wherever she went. The mother at first was not convinced, but eventually with no better option took the advice. She reported back the results several weeks later. Exactly what was predicted to happen by the presenter did. The child was thrilled to get the M&M’s and at first ate only M&M’s. She had M&M’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner and whenever she felt like snacking. The pillowcase went with her everywhere. When she finally trusted that the candy coated chocolate wasn’t going to be taken away from her she gradually loosened her hold on the pillowcase. She continued to carry the candy with her for quite some time but eventually the M&M’s no longer had a hold on her and she left the pillowcase behind along with her obsession.
When I work with parents and children regarding practices of food obsession, children with insatiable appetites, parents of a child whose first words in the morning are what’s for breakfast, and parents of a child who gets up from the dinner table and is looking for a snack, it is very difficult to convince them that all foods can fit into a healthy diet and the foods that are kept from a child are the ones that they are going to want.
Ellyn Satter, a well-known dietitian, social worker and author, provides sound advice on how to handle low-nutrient foods. She encourages meal structure that includes eating meals and snacks at the table and allowing children to decide when they have had enough, including a small serving of a dessert with dinner from time to time or offering sweets at snack time and having the confidence to allow children to eat until they are satisfied. This isn’t meant to say that you allow a child to indulge in what they want to eat whenever they want and to consume as much as they want. Guidance and structure are important.
Parents aren’t always convinced that Satter’s meal and snack structure won’t lead children to eat more. However, research has shown it to be true. A research study was conducted on children that were divided into three groups — the first being restricted from sweets, the second from fruit and the third group was allowed to eat as much as they wanted. When the food was freely available, the children that were unrestricted actually consumed the least. Not only did they consume the least but they also reported less desire for sweets compared to the other two groups that were restricted.
Restriction just increases a child’s focus and their desire for intake of the very food that mom or dad is trying to restrict them from eating. Parents that hide food, put it out of reach, or have very restrictive food rules also have the children that are the most reactive to food in a laboratory setting. Tight control over food can set off overeating in some children. The solution is to control the quality of food that comes into the home.
It is best if parents don’t have different rules for themselves and their children, or allow one child to have something because she is thin, but deny it to another child who is overweight. Parents also make it easier on themselves if they provide high-quality unprocessed foods; because they won’t have to worry that an overweight child is going to overeat these items. It is almost impossible to binge on apples. However, if you turn those apples into apple juice or applesauce it becomes a junk food that can be easy to overeat.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.