Why Not Letting Your Kids Eat Junk Food May Backfire

Parenting is full of "Do as I say, not as I do" moments, but few may be as obvious as the vast differences between the food choices we make for our kids and those we make for ourselves. Am I the only parent who strictly limits her kids' access to sweets, waving away their pleas for candy and giving them fruit for dessert, only to raid the treat drawer as soon as they have been tucked in and drifted off to sleep? I'd guess not.

I'm also probably in good company in feeling guilty when I give in and agree to let my kids eat junk food, even though the salty, fatty, sugary packaged foods that strike fear into our hearts as parents are the very same foods we get nostalgic about when we think about our own childhoods.

We know we're raising our kids in the midst of an obesity crisis and skyrocketing diabetes rates, but is it such a crime to let them enjoy a twirl of cotton candy or an ice cream cone every once in a while?

Rutgers University health psychology professor Charlotte Markey has bravely stood up to reassure us all that, though we shouldn't overdo it, it's OK to give our kids a little junk food here and there. In fact, she recently wrote in Psychology Today, she has seen firsthand, while conducting research at Penn State University's The Children’s Eating Lab, that kids whose parents severely restrict snacks and treats — be they sweet or savory — tend to overindulge, scarfing down more of those foods when given the opportunity, than kids whose parents have been less restrictive.

"Parents who make these treats 'forbidden foods' inadvertently also make them highly desirable foods to their children," Charlotte maintained. What's more, she noted that "as these kids were followed across time, they were also more likely to become overweight as they got older."

In an interview with Today Parents, Charlotte clarified that, while she's not advocating a diet of all junk food, all the time, as parents, "we don't want to make it so off limits that it starts to have sort of a mystique or appeal."

Charlotte, a parent of young kids herself, advocates focusing not on restriction, but on education: teaching kids how and why to make healthy food choices and control their portions. Negotiation and deal making — "eat your greens and you'll get dessert," for instance — is OK, as is using less-healthy foods (a light whipped topping). Charlotte's position — some sweets, yes; but don't go crazy — probably makes intuitive sense to most of us. It sure does to me. After all, don't we health-minded adults make those deals with ourselves every day? And if we enjoy treating ourselves to a square (or two) of chocolate when the sweet tooth strikes — after eating our delicious, healthy spinach salad, of course — why shouldn't we let our kids do the same?

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