Take a look at your kid's friends.
Chances are they influence each other's behavior when they're
together, playing the same games, watching the same shows,
listening to the same music. Apparently, they also eat the same
amount when they eat together, according to a new study that looked
at how much kids ate based on whether they ate with friends or
Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo
paired 65 kids, age 9-15, in a room for 45 minutes with puzzles,
video games and their own bowls of chips, cookies, carrots and
grapes. Whether and what they ate was up to them. The study,
reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that
while all pairs snacked more with a friend than with a stranger,
overweight children, paired with overweight friends, consumed the
most, an average 738 calories versus the 500 calories consumed by
normal-weight kids who ate with a friend, regardless of that
Friends act like a "permission giver," says Dr. Sarah-Jeanne
Salvy, the study's lead author and an assistant professor of
pediatrics at the university's School of Medicine and Biomedical
Sciences. "It kind of sets the norm for the appropriate amount of
So should overweight children be separated from their overweight
friends when eating? Just the opposite. "That would be sad and
ludicrous," says Salvy. "The kids in this study were actually
reinforcing each other. So there's no reason to believe that, if
they are eating healthy food, they won't actually promote healthier
eating in each other."
Isolating kids at mealtime isn't a solution, as a previous study
of Salvy's showed that overweight teens consume the most calories
when eating alone.
What can parents do to help their children eat healthier in social
settings? Ellyn Satter, author of Secrets to Feeding a Healthy
Family, says the focus should be on how they got too heavy in the
first place. With overweight kids, the biggest mistake parents make
is restricting their food intake.
"Children who tend to be large alarm parents and the parents
react by restricting their food intake, whereupon the children
become food preoccupied and prone to overeat when they get the
chance," Satter says. "When these kids get out from under the
parents' restraint, then they tend to eat a lot of whatever food is
on offer. But it's not that they are inherently gluttons."
Instead, Satter advises parents to share responsibilities when
it comes to food.
"The parent's job is to choose what food to put on the table,
what food comes into the house and all of that," she says. "Beyond
that, it's the child's job to decide what and how much to eat from
what parents have put before them."
Avoid mindless eating
While Salvy says the entertainment used in the study didn't
affect consumption, other studies have shown that eating while
watching television increases caloric intake. A 2008 study by the
University of Toronto found that kids who watched TV during lunch
ate 228 more calories than those who ate without TV.
Satter says eating while doing other activities messes with our
internal hunger regulators and leads to eating incompetence. "They
eat without tuning into the process. It's hard to regulate under
those circumstances," she says.
For after-school snacks, Satter says, limit the timeframe and
setting: "No munching along with the homework. No munching along
with the TV. No munching along with anything. Have your snack and
put it away. No more until dinner."
Watch portion size
"It's possible that overweight kids are exposed to overweight
serving sizes, so when they are exposed to a normal portion size,
they actually intuitively adjust their food intake," says Salvy.
"How can you put the responsibility on the child if you provide a
boatload of junk food and leave them with their friends?"
In fact, a 2005 study of preschoolers by Cornell University
found that portion size largely determines how much a child will
eat. To calculate age-appropriate serving sizes, Baylor College of
Medicine's Children's Nutrition Research Center offers interactive
nutrition calculators on its Web site, www.bcm.edu/cnrc.
Studies show that eating together helps children maintain
healthy eating habits and a healthy body weight. A 2007 University
of Missouri-Columbia study found that children who eat fewer meals
with their families were at risk of becoming overweight and those
who eat more often with their families are also more likely to eat
One thing to avoid at the family dinner table: Telling your
children to clean their plate.
Similar to parents who restrict their child's food intake when
they are hungry, those who force their children to eat what's
before them when they're not hungry may interfere with the
development of self control that children have around food,
according to new research by Cornell University.
"When children have little control over what they eat or don't
eat, they may react by acting out and overeating when away from
home," the 2009 study co-author, Collin Payne of New Mexico State
University, told ScienceDaily.
Model good eating habits
In the Buffalo study, kids ate both the junk food and the
healthy produce. To get them to go for just the healthy stuff,
parents need to do the same. When parents eat more fruits and
vegetables, their children do too, according to separate research
by the Saint Louis University School of Public Health and the UCLA
Center for Health Policy Research.
Conversely, both studies found that if parents eat junk food,
their children follow suit. While it may be tempting to eliminate
junk food altogether, Satter says that could have negative
repercussions. "Don't go in the direction of trying to strip meals
and snacks of all kinds of high-calorie food because kids become
preoccupied with that as well and eat as much as they can when they
can," she says.
Instead, help kids keep the day's food context in mind, Salvy
says. "Even if kids were with their friends and were eating one
unhealthy meal or junk food with their friends, if the rest of the
remaining day is not junk food, it counterbalances."
In the end, says Satter, helping children make healthy eating
decisions, no matter the social setting, starts with the most
influential "who" in who they eat with: You.
Rita Colorito is a freelance writer living in Glen
Freelance journalist Rita Colorito brings you the latest health news in Chicago Parent’s Health Page.
See more of Rita's stories here.
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