It typically happens around every holiday season. The shelves in grocery stores become inundated by chocolate figurines of a certain theme, sweets and treats start pouring on kids from everywhere, and parents begin feeling more frustrated and helpless than ever.

I have described some strategies to deal with a seasonal candy overload here, but since I am always on the lookout for new research findings on this important topic, I decided to share with you the facts from an interesting journal article I read a couple of months ago.

In this study, the researchers designed two experiments to see how parental control affects the child’s eating behavior. In other words, they wanted to see whether kids would overindulge in “forbidden” food if they receive free access to it and whether it would affect their penchant for other sweets.

Experiment N1. The researchers gave all parents a 75g bag of chocolate coins to give to their child over the weekend (Saturday and Sunday).  They told half of them (non-restriction group) to give their kids all the chocolate they wanted and the other half (restriction group) to keep the chocolate outside the kids’ reach and give them only a piece at a time and only at certain times.

Results of Experiment 1: 

– Those kids who were not restricted ate more chocolate coins over the weekend. (Of course, ha!)

– Although by Sunday night all kids showed less interest in candy, those in the non-restriction group were even less interested than kids in the restriction group.

– Those kids who did not get free access to the candy were more preoccupied with it by the end of the weekend than those who did.

Experiment 2: In this similar but longer experiment, the researchers gave parents Easter eggs, divided the families into two groups (restriction and non-restriction) and instructed the parents to observe their kids for 2 weeks over Spring break.

 Results of Experiment 2:

– Just like in the first experiment, those kids who were not restricted ate more chocolate eggs (no big surprise here ).

– Although all kids became less interested in chocolate eggs by the end of the two-week experiment, the kids in the non-restriction group became even more indifferent to the lure of the treat.

– ALL kids became more preoccupied with OTHER SUGARY FOODS parents had at home!

The great thing about this study is that the researchers ran it as a controlled experiment in natural settings versus just observing kids’ behavior around sweets. They also could look at the difference between short-term (weekend) versus long-term (2 weeks) exposure to sweets.

 What the scientists concluded:

1/ Restricting access to sweets results in eating less candy in the short term but in a higher level of preoccupation with it in the long term. Looks like those kids who could eat all they wanted eventually lost some of interest to the treats in a natural way. At the same time, kids who could only eat candy when their parents allowed this became even more interested in it with time.

2/ Since ALL kids became more preoccupied with OTHER sweet foods, the scientists suggested that by keeping unhealthy food out of household would be an effective strategy to implement limits in children’s diet  “without creating either increased preoccupation with that food or a rebound effect onto other foods”.

 Take away message:

If you want your kids to eat less of a certain food, keep it out of the house most of the time.

But if you or your kids bring it in, allow them to enjoy their treat without restriction, providing it is safe (no unwanted chemicals or open ripped wrappers).

It is best to serve treats for afternoon snacks, minimizing competition with more wholesome offerings at lunch and dinner.

And finally, avoid labeling these foods “bad”.  Creating a link between food and negative emotions is not a good thing in a long run. Instead, encourage your little ones to stay attuned to their hunger/satiety signals whether they are enjoying carrots or candy and you will give them tools to deal with all kinds of eating situations for many years to come.

Tell me, what strategies you are using around sweets in your house?

References:  

Ogden J., Cordey P., Cutler L., Hayley T. Parental restriction and children’s diets. The chocolate coin and Easter egg experiments. AppetiteVolume 611 February 2013Pages 36-44

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