It may seem like eliminating seconds at the dinner table would help overweight kids. But some experts believe that restricting food could backfire.

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Child Reaching for Second Helping of Muffins
Credit: Jelenani/Shutterstock

Have you ever resisted a second helping at mealtime because you're trying to drop a few pounds or maintain your weight? One researcher says that might be a smart policy for kids, too—especially if you're worried about your child's weight or if obesity runs in the family. But others say restricting food in that way will only backfire in the end.

Clare Llewellyn, Ph.D., an obesity researcher at University College London, made headlines recently when she suggested that one possible strategy for helping overweight kids is to avoid second helpings at mealtime. According to Llewellyn, research shows that overweight children get about 12 extra calories every time they eat—which doesn't sound like much, but adds up over time.

Dr. Llewellyn says some kids are born with "greedy genes" that predispose them to overeating. "The most important reason why some children become overweight and others don't is because they are genetically susceptible," she says, adding that some children are born needing more food to feel satisfied and more prone to eat highly palatable food (think dessert and pizza) even if they're not hungry. When those "greedy genes" meet with the current food environment (where we're surrounded by big portions of high-cal food), it's easy to see how heaviness can occur. Serving only single portions of calorie-dense food—but allowing more helpings of foods like veggies—may be one way to help those kids avoid overeating, she says.

Not everyone agrees. "Kids are wonderfully attuned to their bodies and are able to eat as much as they need," says pediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko. "As we all know by now, restrictions and diets do not work. Denying a hungry child a second serving of mashed potatoes or bread teaches them to ignore their hunger cues."

When some foods are allowed (like vegetables) and others restricted (like pizza), it may also teach kids that some foods are "good" and others are "bad". "Next time they see these 'bad' foods outside their home, where there is no one to control their portions, they will eat beyond their fullness," says Stasenko. "It is a typical restriction-binge cycle many dieters go though."

So what should you do if your child always seems hungry? Stasenko says that putting the right feeding strategies in place is a better remedy than restricting portions. Those strategies include:

  • Having family meals
  • Serving a variety of food at each meal with a choice of low- and high-fat products, starches, protein-rich foods, and fruit and veggies
  • Making sure each meal includes a food the child likes (in enough quantity for him to eat as much as he wants)
  • Eliminating grazing around the clock in favor of serving meals and snacks at set times (and at the table)
  • Keeping an eye out for emotional eating or eating out of boredom

What's your policy for second helpings at meals?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.