A Laissez-faire Approach to Brussel Sprouts

Bchild sits slumped in a chair at the dinner table, scowling at a plate of food. What parents do next, says Leann Birch, could mean the difference between that child having a healthy relationship with food or growing up to be a chronic dieter. And what Birch suggests they should do may be hard for the parents to swallow.

Birch, professor and head of human development and family studies at Penn State, has been studying children's eating behaviors for more than 15 years. How controlling parents are in the kitchen, she said, carries a strong correlation to how responsive kids are to their own nutritional needs. "It's very difficult to do, but parents need to relax and rely on the child's ability to determine how much he or she needs to eat," she said. "Parents really need to focus on which foods are made available and try hard to leave it up to the child to decide how much to eat."

drawing of green plant

Birch's findings suggest that while parents may become frustrated if their child has a sweet tooth or eats exclusively peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, these behaviors are natural and ultimately reveal a self-regulation of energy intake. Both a penchant for sweets and a fear of the nutritionally unknown are adaptive behaviors, said Birch, and these unconditioned eating patterns are protective responses. Children come into the world with "neophobia," or what parents often term being "picky"; yet, Birch explained, parents actually have more control over this pattern than they realize.

"Parents don't really appreciate that a child's initial rejection of a food can be changed," Birch said. "Parents see this rejection as a fixed dislike, they label the kid 'finicky,' and don't present the food again. But with repeated opportunity to consume a new food, you learn that it's safe and basically come to like it."

While Birch admits that it takes a persistent parent to handle the 8-10 exposures that are required for a child to achieve familiarity with a food, the effects on the child are positive and long-lasting.

A preference to high-sugar, high-fat foods is also an adaptive behavior, said Birch: While bitterness in nature is a sign of unripe food or toxic substances, sweetness signals micronutrients and calories. Foods that are high-fat usually mean high-energy, and kids learn to prefer these foods over foods that are less energy-dense. Monitoring their energy intake instinctively, children associate feelings of pleasure with foods that lead to satiety.

Birch arrived at these theories through a series of experiments which involved giving children high- and low-fat foods. In one test, children were fed yogurts that were either low or high in calories and fat; Birch found that they preferred the high-fat yogurts. In another experiment, children were given equal amounts of a drink that was either high or low in calories, and then were offered a wide selection of foods to choose from. The children who had the low-calorie drink, said Birch, compensated by choosing foods that were high in energy density. These findings suggest that kids are sensitive to the energy content of what they eat, Birch said. This ability to self-regulate energy consumption can ultimately prevent over-eating.

But then something happens. "Something goes haywire somewhere in the system," Birch said. Young children who were once tuned in to their own energy cues suddenly become chronic dieters. At any given time, 50 percent of women are on diets. Obesity has seen a 50 percent increase in the last 20 years. And parents, said Birch, may play a role in this change. Looking at individual differences among children and at their parents' styles of feeding, Birch found that parents who impose a lot of control over their child's intake level may be doing their child more harm than good.

"Imposing a lot of control is really counterproductive," said Birch. "Parents who impose a lot of control have kids who do much less well in regulation tests. That's really a general theme in child development literature: that a lot of parental control impedes a child's self-control."

What parents must do, said Birch, is offer children a wide variety of nutritious foods, and leave the rest up to the child. "Because they're going to learn to like high-fat, high-sugar things without any help from us, you need to make sure you give them a lot of opportunities to learn to like other foods." However, this approach must be implemented from the beginning, said Birch, or kids who are used to a lot of control "go a bit nuts" if suddenly that control is removed.

Parental control may also explain the sex differences Birch found in her data. Girls, said Birch, have much more trouble regulating energy intake in experiments, even in preschool. This, she said, may suggest that parents are treating girls and boys differently at the kitchen table.

"Parents are monitoring little girls pretty closely," Birch said. "They're more worried about girls being obese. For boys, what's acceptable for body shape is much broader. It's okay to be a big boy, but it's not okay to be a big girl."

Leann Birch, Ph.D., is professor and department head of human development and family studies in the College of Health and Human Development, S105 Henderson, University Park, PA 16802: 814-863-0241.

Last Updated June 01, 1994