The Scoop on Food

Why Restricting Junk Food Can Backfire

A new study says keeping junk food away from your kids may make them want it even more.

Young girl eating chocolate donut Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock
Sometimes it feels like junk food is everywhere: candy bars at the gas station, chips after soccer games, soda-filled vending machines at the rec center. And sometimes I think it would be nice for my kids to live in little bubbles, filled with only healthy food and far away from artificial colors and high fructose corn syrup. But we live in the real world, where junk food exists—so we have to teach our kids to deal with it. But what's the best way to do that?

Just in time for the Halloween candy onslaught, a new research review says that banning junk food outright isn't the answer—and may actually backfire. According to the review published in the journal Pediatric Obesity, even though parents who are restrictive in their approach to junk food may have good intentions (they want to limit unhealthy foods and encourage a nutritious diet) the result can be kids who want goodies like candy and chips even more—and eat more of it when they get their hands on it. Kids who are at risk for overeating and obesity may be especially vulnerable to these negative effects, they say.

Yet since we also live what experts call an "obesogenic" environment (see previous "junk food is everywhere" lament), a free-for-all approach isn't smart either. The researchers say that instead of a restrictive feeding approach, parents should follow a structure-based approach. As the name suggests, that's when parents establish a home food environment that allows for some treat foods but puts structure, limits, and routines around that food.

For instance:

  • Instead of: Providing no access to junk food
  • Give structure: Allow some access, but avoid bringing large amount of it into the home
  • Instead of: Hiding food or taking food away
  • Give structure: Have occasional moments when kids have access to junk food
  • Instead of: Requiring obedience with no exceptions
  • Give structure: Be consistent with your routines, yet allow for some flexibility

Sure, the research was done with a grant from the National Confectioners Association, who have a vested interest in keeping candy in kids' lives. But the conclusions are similar to what many feeding experts have been saying for years: Being restrictive and controlling may work in the short-term but can have the opposite effect in the long-term. Instead of protecting your kids from junk, being controlling may push them toward it—and it doesn't teach them how to regulate their intake of it, which can ultimately lead to overindulging.

How do YOU handle junk food in your kids' lives?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is an author, educator, and mom of two who blogs about feeding kids and staying sane at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on the book Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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