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Food Restriction: When Parents Control Food and Eating

If you’ve ever been frustrated with the unhealthy food your child is eating, you may have participated in food restriction. Parents controlling food can have lasting effects.

In this article, you’ll learn about:

  • Food restriction 
  • How and why children are drawn to forbidden foods
  • Why it’s important to recognize restrictive feeding practices and work to correct them
Food restriction: What controlling food does to kids long term

What is Food Restriction?

Food restriction is when a parent or caregiver tightly controls or eliminates palatable foods like sweets and treats.

I have encountered families who believe they need to control, tightly limit, or restrict the food their child eats, especially if it’s off-limits food or unhealthy stuff, or their child has bad eating habits.

Parents may label foods like candy or chips as ‘forbidden foods’ and make them scarce or unavailable.

If their child is a big eater or carries extra weight, then food restriction is more likely. Parents often believe this is the path to a healthy weight.

Although parents restrict or control food with good intentions, this may cause more problems for your child and your family down the road, disturbing a healthy relationship with food. 

Controlling Food is a Trap

No doubt, feeding kids is one of the greatest responsibilities you have. Planning your child’s diet, introducing them to different kinds of foods, and establishing healthy habits are part of being a good food parent. Feeding your child is also repetitive, challenging, and a mundane chore.  

Our society’s obsession with being fit and trim is increasingly imposed upon our children.

As a parent, you are faced with confusing and conflicting messages about proper feeding, healthful foods, and optimal levels of nutrition.  

You may respond to this evolving standard of perfect nutrition with the only thing you can think of doing: tightly controlling the types of food your child eats. 

Eventually, your parental feeding practices take a turn for the worse and you become the food police – controlling food portions, your child’s eating, and more. 

Are You Restricting Your Child’s Food?

Sometimes parents don’t recognize this tendency in themselves.

Here are some signs that you’re restricting food:

  • You make sure you avoid certain food items, like candy or chips.
  • You control how much your child eats.
  • You limit exposure to indulgent and unhealthy foods.
  • You only serve nutritious foods.
  • You limit portion sizes.

In a nutshell, food restriction involves controlling every little bite that goes into your child’s mouth.

Here’s how it plays out:

  • Pre-portioning your child’s dinner plate or offering “snack packs” are two ways you might be controlling food.
  • Purchasing diet, low-calorie, or fat-free foods in order to control the amount of calories, sugar or fat your child eats.
  • Limiting second helpings at the dinner table, or even forbidding certain foods from entering the home or the family diet.

Instead, you make a great effort to give your child the healthiest foods you can and in the right amounts.

Which isn’t a bad thing.

The difference is that you’re not relaxed about junk food, sweets, or other indulgent foods.

You worry about them. A lot.

Sound familiar?

Food Restriction: What it Really Does to Kids

Here’s What Restricting Food Really Does to Kids 

Using food restriction regularly can cause children to focus more on, or become “obsessed” with the foods that are limited or forbidden. 

When they become available, children may overeat them.

Especially when children are away from the watchful eyes of mom and dad.

When food is tightly controlled, kids can develop feelings of deprivation.

They may feel left out or deprived when they don’t have the freedom to choose what or how much they want (or need) to eat.

Like adults, kids want what they can’t or don’t have. It’s human nature.

Take away the candy, and kids can’t stop thinking about it.

However, unlike adults, kids have less control over their biological drive to eat. 

More often than not, I’ve seen the research evidence come true: Restrictive feeding practices may promote overeating and loss of intuitive eating.

Most interestingly, these studies not only link food restriction to weight gain, but they also link a parent’s perception of their child’s weight to restrictive feeding. 

In other words, if you think your child’s body size is larger, they’re overeating, or gaining weight, you are more likely to be more controlling — and restrictive — with every little bite. 

Yes, you’re more apt to become a food cop.

I’ve also encountered the opposite outcome. Kids were truly hungry– hungrier than their parents thought they were — but their parents controlled food and amounts, underfeeding the child. 

Is Your Child a Victim of Food Restriction?

As I mentioned, restrictive feeding practices may set kids up for “overeating on the sly,” or secret eating.

For example, if your child slips into the pantry when you go change out the laundry or when you find hidden wrappers under the bed.

If your child canā€™t control his eating when forbidden foods are allowed or available, like when your child goes to a party and he hovers around the food table, eating as much as he can.

Or, when they seem overly excited by sweets and treats.

Ultimately, food restriction undermines your child’s ability to regulate his eating and can cause all sorts of problems with eating.

colorful candy in bowls

How to Tame Your Inner Food Cop

Remember, your child’s perception is real. If he feels restricted, he is.

Try the following tips to calm your inner food cop:

  1. Provide an abundant table of healthy food for mealtime. Your child will feel like there is plenty to eat and can have their fill.
  2. Use all the food groups to make a balanced meal that is both satisfying to the eye and to the tummy.
  3. Recognize the emotional aspect of eating. Feeling hungry and being able to satisfy that hunger is more than a full belly–it’s emotional fullness, too. Maybe feeling emotionally and physically full is what it will take to stop your child from overeating. You have to lose food restriction to achieve that.
  4. Be a diplomatic feeder so that your child experiences a predictable feeding schedule, food boundaries that aren’t too controlling or restrictive, and that which allows reasonable choice.
  5. Don’t be afraid to legitimize forbidden foods. Bring them to the table as part of a meal. Plan them into your child’s daily eating to neutralize them.

What’s your experience with food restriction (yourself or your child)? How did it play out?

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This post was originally published in 2013; updated January 2021.

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