If we are restricting, we are imposing a limit on what a child can eat. For example, perhaps you have a plate of biscuits (cookies) on the table. If you tell a child that they have to stop eating the biscuits because they have had enough, you are restricting their biscuit intake.
Of course, as adults, we have a greater understanding of what constitutes a balanced diet than children do. We might be aware that letting a child eat five biscuits could have negative health implications, so at biscuit number four (or three, or two…) we should just tell the child to stop eating, right?
Wrong. To understand this better, we need to step back for a moment and consider what a positive relationship with food looks like. At its heart, it is all about eating because of physical signals; if a child eats in response to their body’s cues, this means they are effectively self-regulating. They feel hungry - they eat. They feel full - they stop eating.
In my book for early years professionals, Helping Children Develop a Positive Relationship with Food, I explore what the research tells us we should be aspiring to, when it comes to children and food: We want them to enjoy eating; we want them to be able to access a varied diet and we want them to be able to effectively self-regulate.
Restriction interrupts self regulation
If you think about it, it is logical that everytime we override a child’s internal cues by either encouraging them to eat or telling them not to eat (restricting) we are hampering their ability to listen to their body and self-regulate effectively. This is especially critical when children are very young and their habits and behaviours are still very much in development.
Restriction increases children’s liking for the restricted food
This is paradoxical, but research shows that restriction makes children want the ‘forbidden fruit’ (or most likely, not fruit…) even more.
Restriction can introduce conflict
The moment you restrict, you set yourself up in opposition to your child: “You can’t have any more!” - “But I want another one!” Again, we know from the research evidence that mealtime conflict has a negative impact on children’s eating. Possibly because it increases stress, which suppresses appetite.
Restriction contributes to weight dysregulation
This has been known by academics for a really long time, but somehow it hasn’t become common knowledge, at least in the UK. When we consider how restriction interferes with self-regulation and makes the foods being restricted more desirable, this apparently counter-intuitive connection begins to make sense.
A note on policy…
More than ten years ago, academics were pointing out that while government policy (in relation to childhood obesity) covered healthy food choices, it did not emphasise the importance of how adults approach feeding, most noteably in relation to restriction. This needs to change!
How do we respond to this research evidence? Let children eat whatever they like whenever they like? Stop thinking about the content of children’s diets altogether? In fact, there is another way.
When we delve deeper into the academic literature, we start to see that not all types of restriction are created equal. On the fantastic Child Feeding Guide website (by British academics, Dr Emma Haycraft, Dr Gemma Witcomb and Dr Claire Farrow) we learn the difference between overt and covert restriction:
“Covert restriction refers to restriction that the child cannot see and that they are not aware of. For example, not having unhealthy snack foods in the house or not walking home past the chip shop.
Overt restriction refers to restriction that the child can see and that they are aware of. For example, keeping crisps in the kitchen cupboard, but not allowing your child to eat any, or drinking sugary drinks in front of your child but not allowing them to have a taste.”
(Child Feeding Guide - www.childfeedinguide.co.uk)
A revolutionary feeding model
US child feeding expert Ellyn Satter presents a trust-based approach to feeding that supports self-regulation. Her model is called called the Division of Responsibility. With Satter’s approach, the adult decides what is served and when, but the child decides how much they will eat, and even whether they will eat it at all. It is the opposite of what some researchers call ‘controlling feeding practices’, where children may be pressured to eat (or to stop eating).
In order to help children be their healthiest selves, we need to use covert, not overt restriction and follow the Division of Responsibility. Whether a child is a picky eater or eats a wide range of foods, our job is to provide appropriate, nourishing food and their job is to decide how much of it to eat.