Strict diets may not promote childhood weight gain

Some studies have suggested that when parents try to strictly control their children’s diets, it often has the paradoxical effect of promoting excess weight gain. Now new findings show that this may not be true.

The study consisted of nearly 800 mother-child pairs, with about an equal number of boys and girls. The researchers found that children with mothers who tightly controlled their eating habits from a young age were no more likely than their peers to gain too much weight by the age of 9.

In fact, boys whose mothers exerted more control over their food choices between the ages of 4 and 7 were less likely to gain excess pounds between the ages of 7 and 9.

When girls gained weight rapidly between the ages of 4 and 7, their mothers were more likely to try to restrict their diets at later ages. The same was not true for boys.

The findings, published in the journal Obesity, suggest that parents’

tight diet control is more often a reaction to, rather than a cause of, children’s excess weight gain.

“Our findings suggest that controlling maternal feeding practices probably do not cause increased weight gain, as some previous studies have proposed,” said lead researcher Dr. Kyung E. Rhee, of Brown Medical School and the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.

“In fact,” Rhee said in a news release from the university, “some degree of control may actually be beneficial in helping certain children maintain their weight.”

It is not particularly surprising that girls’ excessive weight gain, but not boys’, often caused mothers to become more strict about food choices, according to the researchers.

“Our findings mirror those of other studies that have found that parents are much less likely to recognize or be concerned about the overweight status of sons compared to daughters,” Rhee said.

“These behaviors,” the researcher added, “may represent sensitivity to societal values that girls should be slim while boys have a physical or social advantage in being larger.”

The findings, according to Rhee’s team, should allay some concerns that when parents try to control their children’s diets from an early age, the tactic often backfires.

“There has been some concern about the negative impact of restrictive feeding practices and that we should be more lax and let the child determine how much, when and what to eat,” Rhee said. “However, some degree of control may not be harmful and may actually help certain children maintain their weight.”

SOURCE: Obesity, online March 12, 2009.

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