Restricting a child’s eating may not thwart obesity

Trying to control your child’s weight by making certain foods off-limits? That oft-used and seemingly common-sense approach can backfire, especially for kids who have difficulty with impulse control, new research in The Journal of Pediatrics shows.

While young girls in the study who had a hard time controlling their impulses were at greater risk of being heavy later on than their more self-controlled peers, those who also saw their parents as being strongly restrictive about food were at even greater risk, Stephanie L. Anzman and Dr. Leann L. Birch of the Center for Childhood Obesity Research at Pennsylvania State University in University Park found.

The results, Anzman and Birch say, support the idea that helping children learn to regulate their own eating, rather than create strict rules, may help them to maintain a healthy weight. And for children who do need guidance, Anzman adds in a press release from the journal, parents should offer their children healthy choices, and simply avoid having junk food in the house.

“Parental attempts to help children with lower self-control by restricting their access to favorite snack foods can make the forbidden foods even more attractive, thereby exacerbating the problem,” according to Anzman.

Successful parenting takes a child’s own “behavioral style” into account, Anzman and Birch note in their report, and studies have shown that kids who have a hard time regulating their own behavior actually fare worse when their parents are more intrusive.

To understand the role of parenting style in helping children live in what they call today’s “obesogenic environment” without getting fat, the researchers followed 197 non-Hispanic white girls from age five to age 15. They interviewed the girls and their families every two years.

At age seven, the researchers interviewed mothers about their child’s ability to control themselves, for example asking whether a girl was able to stop doing something when asked, or to keep herself from smiling or laughing in inappropriate situations. None of the 13 questions addressed eating.

The girls also filled out a questionnaire about parental feeding attitudes, which included questions like “If you ask for a snack, does mommy let you have it?”

About one in five of the girls was overweight by age 15. The lower a girl’s level of self-control at seven, the higher her body mass index (BMI) at seven and at all subsequent time points studied. Girls with less self-control at seven had also gained more weight by age 15. The findings remained the same even after the researchers accounted for BMI at age five.

And the relationship between low self-control - referred to in the study as “inhibitory control” - and high BMI was strongest among the girls who reported that their parents were more restrictive about their eating.

“The current results indicate that high restriction in combination with low inhibitory control sets the most at-risk group apart, highlighting that some individuals may be more susceptible to risky weight outcomes than others, even when experiencing the same parenting practices,” Anzman and Birch write.

It’s possible, they add, that restrictive parenting won’t boost obesity risk in kids who have better impulse control, while children with more difficulty controlling their impulses can steer clear of obesity if their parents are able to guide them without being restrictive.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Drs. Susan L. Johnson and Nancy F. Krebs of the University of Colorado in Denver note that while the current study couldn’t show whether parents’ restrictiveness caused girls to be less able to control their impulses, or vice versa, “what is clear, both from clinical practice and research, is that there are many paths to childhood obesity and discovering effective parenting strategies to promote children’s self-regulation of energy intake may differ for children with different temperaments.”

SOURCE: The Journal of Pediatrics, online July 10, 2009.

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