The 'Food Police' Are on the Wrong Track
Dr. Ruth Kava
American Council on Science and Health
Over and over, virtually inescapably, the "food police" exhort us to keep so-called junk food away from children in order to steer them toward healthy dietary habits. Recent research findings, however, suggest that attempts at policing youngsters' food choices may boomerang.
The June 1999 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition includes a report on two experiments conducted by J. O. Fisher and L. L. Birch, both of The Pennsylvania State University. The researchers examined how children aged 3 to 5 years responded to restriction of the availability to them of foods they preferred.
In the first study, a "target" food was made visible -- but inaccessible -- to 31 of the children during their regular snack periods. The children were permitted to eat a snack food they had rated equally desirable (the control).
After the 5-week experimental period, the children's positive comments about the target food were significantly more frequent than their positive comments about the control food, and they requested it more often than they had before its availability had become restricted.
In the second study, the control food was available to the subjects (37 children) throughout each 15-minute snack period, but the target food was available to them for only five minutes per snack period. Again, the children's positive comments about the target food were more frequent. They opted for it more often than they opted for the control food, and they consumed more of the target food per snack period than of the control food.
Researchers Fisher and Birch note that, according to recent surveys, the diets of only a very small percentage of children in the United States conform to government recommendations. In efforts to improve their children's diets, parents may be contributing to this problem by limiting the availability of foods they consider harmful or merely unhealthful, such as convenience foods high in sugar and fat. Perhaps also partly to blame are nutritionists who advocate dietary regimens that center on the elimination of "bad" foods.
Findings from the Fisher and Birch studies suggest that external restrictions on children's food selections may be conducive to their preferring forbidden or "limited-access" foods, especially when such foods are commonly at hand. The researchers state that external dietary restrictions do not promote learning moderation of the intake of such foods.
"These findings suggest that children who experience restriction on a long-term basis will preferentially select and consume palatable, restricted foods when given the opportunity to make their own choices," said the researchers.
Dr. Gilbert L. Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, states: "Contrary to the simple-minded advisories issued by a few self-styled consumer interest groups, studies such as this suggest that unduly restricting all enjoyable foods merely because they're not as healthful or nutritious as some others (fruits and vegetables) may be counter-productive."
American Council on Science and Health
Date Published: June 14, 1999
Date Reviewed: June 14, 1999
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