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article imageNutrition expert: Kids shouldn't be forced to clean their plates

By Layne Weiss     Aug 4, 2013 in Health
A leading nutritionist has warned that the age-old practice of having children eat everything on their plate can lead to eating disorders.
"As a family nutrition expert, I don't make my children eat more when they say they are done," Maryann Jacobsen wrote in a blog for The New York Times. "When I go to birthday parties, and observe other families in restaurants, I can see I am in the minority," she added, citing one example where a 4-year-old at a Mexican restaurant's pleas he was full fell on deaf ears and his mom told him he had to finish the rest of the food. In another example, a 6-year-old at a party was forced to finish all the broccoli on his plate and wound up throwing it up all over the table. Parents have told Jacobsen how proud their kids are when they finish all the food on their plate because they learned in pre-school that a clean plate is a "happy plate."
But Maryann says controlling feeding practices such as "clean your plate" negatively affects a child's food regulation skills, The Daily Mail reports.
This obsession parents seem to have with their children finishing everything on their plates diminishes a child's ability to understand when they are truly hungry and when they are full enough to stop eating.
A 2007 study published in Appetite revealed that 85% of parents use praise, food rewards, and reasoning to get young children to eat more during mealtime.
Another study published in Pediatrics this May showed that more than half of parents expect their adolescent children to clean their plates. A third prompted their children to eat more, even after declaring they were full.
In 1987, Leanne Birch director at the Center for Childhood Obesity Research at Penn State examined the effects of "clean your plate." She found that preschoolers asked to focus on external signals of eating (food on their plate, for instance) ate more food after a high-calorie meal than the children who focused on the internal cues, being hungry or full.
In 2008, Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating", found that boys who were required to clean their plates at home asked for large portions of food outside the home. And in another study, conducted in 1999, obese adults recalled more food rules growing up than their "leaner counterparts."
According to Jacobsen, pushing food doesn't always have negative connotations. It's not always about getting your child to eat more, but also about the quest to get children to eat healthy, The New York Times reports. For instance, children are often rewarded with dessert if they finish all their vegetables. This strategy, unfortunately, makes kids less likely to appreciate healthy foods, making desserts more desirable. With all the negotiating at the table, children are unable to understand the internal signals of being hungry or full. By the time they are adults, the "shoulds" of eating take over their body's own wisdom, and they can't even understand what it means to be "full."
There is good news, however. Research is providing evidence that focusing on the internal cues is extremely beneficial. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, for instance, have found that young adults who used the internal cues of hunger and fullness to guide their eating habits not only had a lower body mass index than those who used external cues, but they also had lowered instances of disordered eating.
Jacobsen says it's time to say 'Good Riddance' to the 'Clean Your Plate' club. "A 'happy plate' is one in front of a child who's permitted to listen to her body, not our out-of-date 'rules,'" she writes in The New York Times.
More about clean plate club, Eating disorder, nutritionist warning, Food, Eating
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