When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far

Kathleen Fifield, Illustration by Tim Robinson

As the director of the Children’s Eating Behavior Laboratory at Penn State University, Kathleen L. Keller, Ph.D., has a front-row seat into the subtle complexities that shape things like why some preschoolers eat more veggies than others and what makes some kids unusually obsessed with sweets. Studying the brain science and psychology behind factors like fat preference and snack packaging, Keller also gets a window onto another trend in the quest to improve children’s diets: anxious parents.

As the parents pass by her office after a session in the cheerful dining and observation rooms, Keller hears some of them scolding their children for the food choices they made—how many cookies they took when invited to reach into a jar as often as they liked, say, or why they skipped the carrots but dug into the granola bars that arrived five minutes later. “We do a lot of experiments where children might get to eat things they don’t eat at home and, especially when it comes to sweets, some kids really go to town,” Keller explains.

On their next visit to the lab or its “metabolic kitchen,” Keller will often watch those same boys and girls make different choices. But even if such parental influence works to curb treat intake in the short term, Keller worries about the long-term effects on the kids themselves: “Parents are just using way too much pressure when it comes to eating, and it can backfire when children get older.”

In some ways, it’s hard to fault any parent who’s playing bad cop against the sugars, fats, and artificial sweeteners of the food and beverage world. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do, given all the research on the crucial relationship between nutrition and children’s health? The message we constantly get is that there’s no time for even a moment of complacency—and a recent study underscored that, linking 75 percent of a baby’s development to nutrition received in the womb. If providing healthy food is part of a mother’s job from the moment she pops her first folic acid supplement, who can blame her if she turns it into a calling after her baby starts solids? After all, for every dad who’s a tad freaked that his child just wolfed down five cookies in a lab, there are many more parents who aren’t concerned enough, which doesn’t bode well for the country’s obesity epidemic.

The problem is in all the pressure that comes with meeting a standard of nutrition perfection—or trying, and failing, and then wondering if your 4-year-old’s IQ might be a few points higher if you’d been more vigilant in the veggie aisle. There’s more than enough stress to go around, both for our kids and ourselves—and on a bad day in the kitchen, it’s easy to feel like a judge and jury are holding court, whether it’s your own Type-A streak talking or a projection of what you imagine other parents are offering up that you’re failing to blend, fold, or mix into the meal at hand.

Nutrition Competition

Even the moms I’ve always considered naturals at feeding their kids healthy, sophisticated meals cop to feeling uneasy at times. Take the email thread that circulated among some preschool parents in my friend Elissa Lash’s community of “people who tend to be very into organic and local eating and mindful about the food they eat” on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. It started with one mom relaying her shock at learning that her favorite “all-natural” cereal brand still had GMOs and asking others for quick-breakfast alternatives.

The exchange, as my friend describes it, quickly veered into what felt like “a mammoth competition over granola recipes and who feeds their kids what,” with parents questioning others’ decisions to include dried apples (“consider the sulfur”), asserting the superiority of sprouted grains in the mix (“but what about gluten?”) or…just throwing it out there…wondering why someone wasn’t cooking a warm breakfast with “a complete protein” in the first place. “Sometimes,” says Lash, a busy real estate agent on the island, “you just need to get out the door and want to pour your kids a bowl of cereal and not feel bad about it.”

But for every parent who relishes perfecting her granola recipe or enjoys reading the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, there are those for whom concern can tip into a kind of free-form angst over real or perceived nutritional threats. “I think a lot of parents do have valid concerns about food and the food supply and chemicals and compounds in the food, and first and foremost I respect where people are coming from,” says Lisa Dorfman, RD, a psychotherapist and licensed nutritionist in Miami. But if the parents she meets tend to be from a generation better educated about food sourcing and more health-minded than their parents were, she also finds some of them noticeably more on edge. “The fear factor is becoming increasingly more prevalent,” she says. When she’s counseling 12-year-old girls who may be putting on a little weight as they enter puberty, Dorfman says their moms can’t seem to hold back from whispering into her ear things like, “Is it the gluten?”

Natalia Stasenko, RD, a pediatric nutritionist who offers online feeding classes for parents, has seen a similar uptick in nervousness. Some of the parents she works with are “paralyzed with fear when it comes to choosing food for their own children.” Beyond worries like whether “dairy is evil,” she says, media-hyped trends like “real food” and “clean eating” have only added to her clients’ apprehension.

Food: A Four-Letter Word?

Following restrictive diets themselves is often what causes parents to struggle when feeding their kids, says Stasenko. One of her Paleo clients, for instance, ate an all-veggie salad for lunch every day but expressed frustration that her 3-year-old son would eat only a bagel with cream cheese. The problem, Stasenko says, wasn’t so much the nutritional disparity (she’s constantly reminding clients that kids need more starch and fat than adults do) but that in their current setup, mother and son weren’t eating together. “Rigid eating habits do not necessarily make for the most relaxed mealtimes,” she notes.

Dorfman sees parents’ obsession with one particular compound as a major source of hand-me-down anxieties. Among her clients, “the prevailing theme is that carb is a four-letter word,” she says, noting that being overly concerned about this kind of fuel can cause problems for the many teenage athletes she sees. Not only do they need carbs to perform well on the field, but demonizing an entire food group can have negative effects of its own. “If Mom and Dad have a problem with starch, you better believe they will impose that fear on their kids,” Dorfman says. “And not allowing their kids to have carbs for a long time creates something like a binge-drinking episode.” Stasenko describes a case of a mom who restricted carbs to control her daughter’s weight—which caused the girl to “eat almost a loaf of bread at her friends’ houses and finish cake and pizza on other children’s plates at parties instead of playing.”

Keri Glassman, RD, author, nutritionist, and founder of nutritiouslife.com, notices the over-concern in her clients, too. In parents, the red flags are often time-sucks: spending an hour and a half of their evening making the kids’ bag lunches for the next day, for example. In kids, she’s noticed a lot of hang-ups about sugar—“there are those who don’t want to eat it at all and those who want to eat lots of it”—as well as “worry about eating at other people’s homes if they don’t eat organic.” To make sure the misgiving doesn’t eclipse their enjoyment of food, Glassman finds herself talking about ideas like balance or whether or not a family’s “food culture” can shift when they’re not at home.

A few key discussions may in fact help quash a child’s budding food anxiety. But preventing it involves keeping mum about what’s on your table earlier on: “Do it, don’t talk about it,” Glassman says, underscoring the importance of presenting healthy meals, then letting kids choose what they like without pressure—or commentary—from you. What not to hold back in order to raise kids who intuitively enjoy nutritious food? Your enjoyment of sharing meals together. Here are more ways to foster healthy eating without going overboard:

Use more descriptive adjectives. While telling my 5-year-old daughter that broccoli helps her be strong seems to be working at the moment, experts tell me to prepare for her to eventually rebel against my obvious pleasure in watching her eat it. A wiser approach is just letting her discover she likes the taste of certain vegetables. “When I talk to children, I emphasize eating a variety instead of labeling foods ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy,’ ” says Stasenko, who notes that it’s more enticing to discuss the sensory aspects of food or to be more specific about finding them, say, “fresh,” “zesty,” “crisp,” or “juicy.”

Allow unlimited treats (no, really). Stasenko recommends putting out a plate of cookies or a whole chocolate bar from time to time and letting kids get their fill. “This may seem counterproductive,” she says, “but knowing that they will get unlimited access to their favorite foods helps children relax in the presence of highly palatable choices.”

Be wary of the carrot and stick. Offering rewards to get younger kids to try new or healthier foods can pay off: Keller found that “sticker incentives” combined with child-selected cartoon-character packaging doubled vegetable intake in kids who had been resistant to the food group. And a just-released British study found that children ages 2 to 4 responded to consistent rewards of praise (when used with other approaches like parents’ demonstrating their love of cauliflower.)

But Keller recommends using such incentives only as a training-wheels approach to get toddlers or preschoolers to try something new. Why? The problem with getting kids to eat beans by promising them screen time is that the child mind draws this conclusion: “If I get a reward for eating this, it must not be that good,” explains Keller. What’s more, earlier studies from Penn State showed that while stickers and TV time could boost short-term consumption of healthier foods, there was potential for children to reject the very foods they’d been rewarded for eating.

Serve family style. Nutritionists often point out that part of developing healthy eaters involves letting them choose for themselves from the options on the table. Experts and parents also tout “deconstructed” meals as a tool for helping family members enjoy (versions of) the same meal. Try DIY tacos or burritos with a variety of healthy filling choices, or serve the building blocks of a pasta salad that combines whole wheat fusilli, veggies, and cubed cheese. Stasenko suggested this approach to her client struggling to bridge her Paleo lunch with her son’s bagel: “The mom was pleased to see how curious her son became about the ingredients in her salad when she served some in a bowl to share, and she also made sure to eat a few bites of her son’s bagel.”

Prepare for “foreign” foods. For some parents, it’s the Goldfish at the playground. For others, it’s the four inches of blue frosting on a sheet cake. Whatever your bugaboo, the reality is that other people will offer your kids things you don’t want them to eat. And although this might be a bitter pill to swallow if you’ve been omitting refined sugar from your 2-year-old’s diet, most experts and parents say it’s often better to give in—a little—on your rules in social situations. Laura Peifer, a holistic health coach, says that while she still bans refined sugar and flour from desserts at home (where options include frozen grapes or a date bar), the onset of birthday parties and playdates (and the impossibility of monitoring them all) led her to ease up on her rules when her daughter visited friends’ houses. Maryann Jacobsen, who blogs at raisehealthyeaters.com, says she lifts her at-home rules for birthday parties in particular (“My kids can eat whatever is offered to them”) but says “no thank you” to snacks offered too close to dinner on playdates. “I try to explain to the kids what the reason is so they learn something in the process,” she says.

Pick up on kids’ cues. Whether it’s a sudden interest in juicing greens (as my Nashville friend reported her 14-year-old recently expressed) or (less ideal) my 9-year-old’s newfound obsession with the sweet beverage offered at camp, use the things your kids fixate on as a way to talk openly about food. After noticing that one bottle of “not soda” contained 41 grams of sugar, my son asked how many teaspoons that would be, then switched on his own to a type with 12 grams. (Progress.) Similarly, when he told me he wanted some pricier mushrooms at the store because he “liked the picture on the package,” I shelved my usual kneejerk response (“No”) and initiated a discussion about how companies use packaging to appeal to kids. My “reward”? Being pleasantly surprised to see him gobble up the raw mushrooms at home.

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