Hands-off parenting at the dinner table is currently being promoted by some dietitians. The thinking is that restrictive diets, or those that pressure youngsters into eating healthy foods, can interfere with a child's innate capacity to regulate calorie consumption. Later in life, this usually results in a preference for high-fat foods, which have been linked to diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
But there are plenty of experts who still believe hands-on parental intervention is vital.
"I think it's the parents' responsibility to put the child on the correct eating track," says Gail Frank, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Assn. and a Cal State University professor of nutrition. "This (early direction) forms the basis for the child's taste buds and the child's perception of what an OK or non-OK eating behavior is."
After all, as Frank points out, kids don't live in an isolated environment in which only nutritious foods will be offered, and they aren't always going to be under a parent's guidance.
But others feel that parental pressure to eat certain kinds of food can do more nutritional harm than good.
"Rewarding kids for cleaning their plates or pressuring them into eating foods parents believe are nutritionally vital can be a problem," says Leann Lipps Birch, Ph.D, a University of Illinois professor of human development and nutrition sciences. "When you focus the child on cleaning his or her plate, you limit the child's ability to use hunger and satiety to control eating, (and inadvertently) contribute to the development of eating disorders and obesity later in life."
Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian specializing in children's feeding and eating, agrees. Force feeding of foods with a perceived benefit, she says, can lead to finickiness, poor growth and battles about food in the short term, and more serious health problems in adulthood.
"Children are capable of regulating their food intake," Satter says. "They have a wisdom greater than ours about what is good for them and what they need to grow properly. If you present them with a variety of food, they are cabable of picking and choosing and learning to like a nutritionally adequate diet."
Satter and Birch base their hands-off philosophy on infant research done in the '20s and '30s by a pediatrician named Clara Davis. She found that kids, up to about age 4 1/2, will eat the right food combinations for good health and sufficient growth--if left to follow their own cravings. She did admit, though, that her data was based on an "artificial environment." Getting kids to choose a nutritionally adequate diet was dependent upon the parent offering only foods of high nutrient value. Adding sweets would change the results.
Although there's been no research with older children, Birch believes that the mechanism could be retained as the child ages if parents wouldn't interfere with the process.
"Given the chance to select from among an array of healthful foods," Birch says, "children can naturally choose the combinations of foods in amounts consistent with adequate nutrition. (Of course), first they must have access to those foods."
However, Dr. Ronald Kleinman, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition, questions the existence of this inherent knack to control caloric intake. "I honestly don't know if (children) have an innate ability to chose healthy food or not," Kleinman says. "And, I'm not sure that it's terribly important to know. There are so many other influences on what a youngster eats that an innate ability may not be able to exercise itself."
Both Kleinman and the ADA's Frank point to advertisements and peer pressure from siblings and friends that strongly affect what kids eat. Unlike infants, who eat whatever they are given, older children choose what they eat according to the outside cues around them.
"There is enough evidence that the ability is there early on," Birch insists. "It just gets socialized out. Parents basically teach kids to ignore internal cues."
She and Satter believe that overambitious parental intervention--usually in the form of pressure to eat fewer foods with fat and cholesterol and more foods with a perceived health benefit, attaches a negative quality to the good-for-you foods.
Food in the "bad-for-you" category, typically are sweet items, serve as pacifiers and treats. This, Birch says, sets up an uncontrollable preference for forbidden food, and a dislike for "health" food. Eventually the sweet is associated with satisfaction in the child's mind. He or she grows up trying to avoid the prohibited food and adulthood binging and other eating disorders are the result.
"You want kids to eat things that are good for them so you say, 'OK, eat your broccoli, Johnny, and then I'll give you some chocolate ice cream.' It works really well," Birch says, "but kids learn to like ice cream even more than they did before.