Thursday 22 February 2018

Dear David Coleman: My five-year-old goes crazy for treats. Help!

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I have a five-year-old daughter who is pretty good with food - except for one thing: when she goes somewhere where there are treats available to her, she will devour every bit she can get her hands on. She also eats these treats really quickly and can't get enough into her mouth at the same time! I don't allow treats in the house in general and often tell her 'no' when we are out. I can't help feeling that my saying no in the past has caused this behaviour - but I would like to know how I could change it at this stage?

David replies: You may be right that your restriction of treats for your daughter has added to her desire for those treats when they are available.

Most of the research in this area looks at what happens to children's eating when we restrict certain foods. Very little research looks at what is a good way to try to help children learn to be moderate in their consumption of foods we might want them to avoid, like those foods that are high in sugar or fat.

There does seem to be consensus, however, that restricting foods actually focuses children's attention on those foods and makes it more likely that they will want to get at, and eat, those foods.

One study, carried out in 2000, invited seven-year-old girls to eat a standard lunch, followed by free access to snack food afterwards. The researchers found that the girls who were restricted from snack food at home ate more snack food after the lunch and had negative feelings about their eating.

This concept of 'eating in the absence of hunger' is reflected in a more general finding that restricting foods can often lead to greater obesity and poor eating habits. A separate study showed, for example, that the most restricted children at age five became the heaviest by age nine.

It would seem, then, that you are right to question your approach. By almost never allowing your daughter to eat treats, you may be making those treats more desirable. You may also be taking away her ability to regulate her own consumption of those treats, leading to the overindulgence you describe.

Learning to regulate our eating can be hard. There are lots of adults who also struggle to say no to the extra biscuit, or always include a bag of crisps with their lunch.

Other studies have shown that when children are unrestricted in their food intake, they tend to find a natural balance in a mix of sugar, protein, carbohydrate and so on. That balance isn't always seen in each meal, but over the course of weeks and months, children will maintain a balance.

It is frightening for parents, however, to think about just letting their children eat whatever they want. We worry that they will either undereat the healthy foods or overeat the unhealthy ones. It isn't even always feasible for us to allow that.

So we too have to find a balance in how we regulate the availability of food for our children. That involves creating structure and routine around eating and also, at times, placing reasonable limits on certain foods.

If children get into the habit of eating, socially, at a table, they are less likely to engage in the 'mindless' eating that happens when they are also watching TV or playing on some device. Eating while distracted can lead to overeating because we don't pay enough attention to the eating experience, or the signals that we are full.

Having regular access to a small dessert after dinner, or one small treat every day, that children can predict and rely upon getting, can meet their desire for sweet treats, while allowing them to just enjoy the treat, rather than being anxious that it is the last chance they'll ever have to get such a sweet food.

Talking about your own food philosophy can also help. I am sure you have valid reasons why you have restricted treats (presumably concerns about the unhealthy potential of sugar). It is important that your daughter learns this.

Talk about the idea of balance and moderation to your daughter while she is experiencing this - it may make it easier for her to regulate her own treat consumption when she is older.

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