Forcing children to finish their food can cause eating disorders!

Forcing children to finish their food can cause eating disorders!

Did you know that forcing children to finish their food is counter-productive? Read on to find out why.

“You don’t finish eating I call policeman come catch you!” Sounds familiar? Yes, indeed it does, for this is something many of us grew up hearing. And our children aren’t spared from their grandparents’ threats of summoning either the police or the bogeyman, if they don’t finish their food. However, forcing children to finish their fooddoes more harm than good. Here’s why.

A study published in the Journal of Paediatric Psychology states that forcing children to finish their fooddisrupts normal eating behaviour and makes children vulnerable to unhealthy weight gain. 

A leading nutritionist, Maryann Jacobsen, further affirms this by slamming the age-old practice of asking children to clean their plate. In doing so, we are negatively affecting children’s food regulation skills as they age.

Why does forcing children to finish their foodaffect them negatively?

When you force them to eat, there’s a lot of negotiation going on at the dinner table. This results in them losing sight of internal signals of hunger and fullness.

As they grow and get accustomed to this, they don’t quite understand or know what being full actually means. Over time they internalise how they should be eating, and continue eating in that manner.

When forcing children to finish their food, there’s something else that is happening and many parents overlook this. There’s a power struggle going on.

Dr. Linda, a psychologist and research leader at Queensland university of Technology said, “If children are forced to sit at the table until they eat, this turns into a struggle for who has power over the child’s eating habits which could well set the scene for later eating problems.” Why?

Because when children feel that control over their body, or in this case what they put in their body, is taken away from them, they are susceptible to growing up with eating disorders to strive to take back that control over their body.

forcing children to finish their food

Anorexia stems from the desire to take control over one’s body.

So parents should not turn mealtime into a struggle for control, because eating disorders like anorexia stem from a desire to take control over one’s body. 

The current situation

Studies show that half of all parents expect their adolescent children to clean their plates and one third of them even prompted them to eat more. This is in spite of them stating they were full!

85% of parents try to get their children to eat more and 83% of children eat more than they otherwise would have.

Parents use a wide array of tactics such as reasoning, praise and food rewards. Mothers tend to praise their daughters for finishing their food while fathers tend to pressure the boys.

It’s no different in Singapore, especially amongst the older generation who seem to firmly believe that there is a correlation between eating more and growing up stronger and healthier. It even starts from infancy, as many of them force babies to drink more milk than they actually want or require.

Mdm Mary, who recently became a grandmother, shared how she made her daughter feed her newborn, formula milk at night, in fear that her breastmilk was insufficient to meet the needs of a growing baby. She also suggested mixing cereal in the milk, from 3 months on.

As for older children, Singaporean parents and grandparents tend to serve them a huge bowl of porridge or rice, with meat and vegetables as side dishes. They often ask the children to have a second helping of rice.

forcing children to finish their food

Singaporeans love porridge but it’s predominantly carbohydrates.

Dr. Natalie Epton, SBCC Baby & Child Clinic, Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre, terms it as a game of hunt – a whole lot of rice with a bit of meat and vegetables scattered in it. She described it as common to eat more rice in the Asian culture, but reminds that we should follow the healthy plate model. It is a ubiquitous guide to how we should portion our food and have equal amounts of carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fruit.

What it should be

Children should grow to learn how to use hunger and fullness as a guide to eating. Researches have found out that those who did so, grew up to have a lower body mass index than those who were forced to finish their food. They also had lower instances of disordered eating.

Girls who weren’t forced to finish their food when they were kids were also less likely to diet and binge-eat. 

When children are allowed to guide their eating through intuition, they have a higher chance of growing into adults with lowered rates of disordered eating and they also diet less.

So they takeaway is, allow children to eat in moderation and in accordance to their body’s cues instead of encouraging over consumption.

Parents should provide nutritious foods and children, not parents, should decide what and how much of these foods they eat. 

References: Daily Mail NDTV

Republished with permission from: theAsianParent Singapore

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Beverly Burgess

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