KIDS
November 18, 2014

Rules Help Kids Eat Better

Kids become better at controlling their own eating when parents set a few rules. They whine less, too.

Parents have been known to resort to bribery, threats, or whatever it takes to get kids to eat healthy foods. Those methods may work in the moment, but they're not effective long-term. New research has found something that might — setting a few rules.

Children whose parents set rules about what they can and cannot eat tend to have healthier eating habits than kids raised without such rules, according to researchers at the University of Buffalo.

In fact, when it comes to helping kids eat a better diet, it seems to be far more useful to make it clear to children what foods are off-limits than to demand they eat more of this or less of that.

Rules Make Self Regulation Easier

Self-regulation refers to the ability of a child — or adult — to control his or her behavioral and emotional impulses and delay gratification. Just as it is easier for most adult dieters to avoid eating cookies or chips if they keep them out of the house, kids find it easier to choose healthier foods when unhealthy foods are not readily-available options.

Preschoolers whose parents did not have food rules drank about 25 percent more soda than children subjected to rules.

Children who had clear rules about what they could and could not eat had an easier time avoiding sugar-sweetened or fatty foods. A two-year-old who believes that he or she can only have soda on very special occasions is not likely to beg for it every day. This leads to healthier eating habits when these children reach the age of four, the study found.

The Study
Researchers looked at the food behaviors of almost 9,000 children, using data from a longitudinal study of children born in 2001. Study parents had rated how frequently their two-year-old was fussy or irritable and whiny. They were also asked how well their children were able to wait for something.

Self-regulation by itself, without parental food rules, made little difference in children’s later eating habits.

Two years later when the children were four, the same parents were asked about their child’s consumption of fruit juices, soda, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fast food, salty snacks, and sweets and any food rules they may have set.

Clear rules about what they could and could not eat seemed to make it easier for children to regulate themselves and eat a healthier diet.

Soda was the one food that kids consumed most if there was no rule set against it. Preschoolers whose parents did not have food rules drank about 25 percent more soda than children subjected to rules.

While kids are attracted to soda, it does not diminish their hunger. This suggests how preschoolers who have no food rules begin to consume unhealthy foods early in life, Dr. Wen explained.

“We found that children who were able to self-regulate at two years old had healthy eating habits by the time they were four, so long as their parents also set rules about the right types of foods to eat. We found that self-regulation by itself, without parental food rules, made little difference in children’s later eating habits.”

Parents Can Have a Big Influence

It may seem contradictory that setting rules for kids would help them learn to regulate themselves. In fact, the size of the impact a parent’s rules about foods a child can or cannot eat could have on children’s eating habits came as a surprise to Neha Sharma, a co-author of the study.

The rules offer kids some boundaries, and without such boundaries the benefits of a child’s ability to self-regulate childhood weight gain and obesity could be diminished. Once again, this demonstrates how crucial parents' involvement is to the development of a child’s eating habits.

Soda was the one food that kids consumed most if there was no rule set against it.

The researchers are considering another study to determine whether improving the ability of preschoolers to self-regulate their behaviors would result in healthier eating habits.

In the meantime, the message is clear for parents: Kids benefit from rules about what they are allowed or not allowed to eat. Set the rules early and stick with them.

The study was presented during ObesityWeek 2014.

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