People love to say that an eating disorder is an issue of "control," that if you can't control the events around you, at least you can control your food.

I'm not exactly fond of this theory, although there are elements of truth to it. Stress often precedes the onset of an eating disorder, and people typically feel out of control when they're stressed. As well, most people do want to control what they eat. I think this is natural. I'm not talking about "control" here like I will only eat X calories or only fat free foods or what have you. Just that you will pick what--and how much--you want to eat.

Nothing messes with that more than dieting!

However, a new study suggests that preschoolers who are ordered to clean their plates at mealtime* tend to eat more at snacktime.

"We found that the more controlling the parents were about telling their child to clean their plate, the more likely the kids, especially the boys, were to request larger portions of sweetened cereal at daycare," says lead author Brian Wansink at the keynote address of the Carolinas HealthCare System Obesity 2009 Conference in Charlotte, NC on Friday.

First off, I have major criticisms about some of Brian Wansink's work that I won't go into here. Suffice to say, he deals with some shaky assumptions and occasionally questionable methodology. I do find his work interesting, if occasionally dubious. As well, any results being presented at a conference on obesity also make me look a little more closely at what is going on.

However, from what little I've been able to find of this study, it seems straightforward. Mothers of preschoolers were asked how much they encouraged their children to clean their plates at mealtimes. Then the preschoolers were allowed to eat as many Froot Loops as they wanted at snacktime in day care. The researchers found that the kids who were told to clean their plates ate more sugary cereal.

Yet this sense of rebellion would also seem to hold true in people who diet. Having been there myself, eating something "forbidden" can seem like the perfect way to give the diet police the finger.

Is this a control thing? Perhaps. Could it be that the kids who are told to clean their plates have less sugary foods around and therefore at more of them at daycare? Perhaps. Could it be the actions of loving parents trying to make sure that their children eat a balanced diet? Probably.

But it really drives home the wisdom of Ellyn Satter and how to feed young children, so that they may be "joyful and competent eaters."

*My parents pulled the starving-kids-in-China line on me once, until I offered to ship what was left on my plate over to Beijing. But otherwise, I never remembered having to eat everything.

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Anna said...

i agree :)

if i had any control, i'd eat

A:) said...

Lol, correlation does not equal causation -- do statisticans forget this once they get their PhD's


anon mom said...

As I was reading this, I was actually thinking the boys ate more b/c they want to please their parents (who encourage them to eat/finish their plates and stress its importance). Therefore, they demonstrate what good kids they are by going out of the way to eat even more than a minimal/average portion. Almost competitive ... be the best at what the parents value.

Carrie Arnold said...

Anon mom,

Wow- I didn't think of it that way. It's a very interesting interpretation, and I think there's a lot of merit to it. I'm wondering whether the kids were observed while they were eating, or if the food was weighed to determine what the boys ate.

Ultimately, from a biological standpoing, I'm guessing that having to clean your plate disconnects the hunger/satiety cues in your brain and replaces it with "I'm full because there's no food left" or "I'm still hungry because there is." Which is fine when there's an appropriate portion size.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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