Parental Control: How to Interact with Your Child About Diet

New research published in the journal Appetite emphasizes the importance of how different forms of food-related parental control can impact a child’s dietary intake and weight-related outcomes.

The study, which utilized data from the University of Minnesota HOME Plus study, explored ways parents of young children interact around food and sought to understand how food rules and routines established by parents impact the food choices and weight status of children. In particular, this study examined the use and impact of two distinct types of control. The first, directive control, happens when parents put external pressure on the child to eat a healthy diet by enforcing food restriction and pressure-to-eat. Examples of directive control include pushing kids to eat all of their food at mealtime or requiring children to finish their meal before earning the reward of dessert. The other, non-directive control, includes behaviors such as parents modeling healthy eating and encouraging healthy food as meals and snacks.

Katie Loth, Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, says previous research has often concluded controlling food-related parenting practices can have a detrimental effect on child weight and diet patterns. However, Loth worries telling parents to avoid controlling behaviors isn’t a clear enough recommendation and might leave concerned parents without an understanding of how to best help their children. Her goal is to provide parents who have concerns about their child’s weight or eating habits with specific guidance to the best approaches to helping children achieve and maintain a healthy weight and a healthy relationship with their bodies.

“All parents want what is best for their child. When a parent begins to worry about how their child is eating or their weight, it can feel natural to place more rules or restrictions on their child,”  said Loth. “However, research has shown too much control can be detrimental to children because it takes away from a child’s ability to respond naturally to their own hunger and satiety cues. Instead, it encourages them to respond to cues in their environment, which can lead to unhealthy food intake patterns and weight gain over time.”

Results of this new study showed non-directive control was associated with increased consumption of nutrient-dense foods. In light of this, Loth recommends parents promote healthy childhood eating behaviors and weight management through behaviors such as, including making nutritious food items readily available at home and modeling healthy food choices.

“Parents can promote their children’s healthy lifestyle through the provision of a home environment conducive to making healthy choices,” said Loth. “By making the healthy choice, the easy choice at home, parents don’t need to create or enforce as many rules or limits around food and instead can allow their child the freedom to make choices within the context of this healthy environment.”