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by Jane Hirschmann

Think about all the children starving in _______." "Take a bite for grandma." "Clean your plate." "Don't spoil your appetite." All the familiar ways adults attempt to control children's appetites. Can children control their food intake without any help from grownups? How can you let a three-year-old go her own way when it comes to food choices and amounts when it has been so difficult for the adults around her to do the same? These questions speak to the heart of the demand feeding philosophy—is it possible for children to self-regulate?

As you know, I believe that the body is self-regulatory. How can I be certain? In the past, I've relied on the Clara Davis cafeteria studies of the 1930s. This research demonstrated that when infants are left to their own devices, they naturally choose foods which contain the vitamins needed for healthy growth and development. Unfortunately, the study has little application in today's world because the only foods offered in that study were "pure or whole" foods—no refined sugars or processed foods.

I am quite pleased that new frontiers have been forged and studies have appeared over the last few years proving that children not only can, but must self-regulate. I want to share these studies with you because in today's world, those of us who embrace a nondiet, nonintervention theory for feeding our children need an arsenal of quality proof to back up our belief system.

Dr. Leann Birch, from the University of Illinois, did a study in 1990 which investigated the energy intake of young children. She took a group of 2-5 year olds and presented them with a variety of food choices; i.e., macaroni and cheese, carrots, peas, pudding, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, etc. They were allowed to eat as much food as they wanted. She discovered that their eating looked very chaotic within each 24 hour period. On some days, the children would eat very little in the morning and then consume much more later in the day. At other times, the reverse would be true. However, the amount of calories the children consumed during each 24 hour period remained totally consistent. This proved her theory that children are quite capable of self-regulation.

Dr. Birch along with her colleague Dr. Susan Johnson went on to study the impact of parental control on a child's ability to self-regulate food intake. They reported on this and related findings in PEDIATRICS, November, 1994.

They studied seventy-seven 3-5 year olds and their parents from a preschool setting. They found that the more control the mother reported using over her child's eating, the less self-regulation the child displayed. Boys fared better than girls in this respect which suggests that the sex of the child influences a parent's choice of feeding practices and/or that boys and girls respond differently to the information about eating that they receive.

"Many parents assume that children are incapable of regulating their food intake. They believe that in addition to their parental responsibility to provide healthy food choices, they must control how much food their children consume. Unfortunately, our results reveal that the controlling strategies adopted by parents to meet these goals appear to be counterproductive to the development of the child's ability to self-regulate food intake."

The fact that the researchers found unanticipated sex differences in the amount of control exerted in the feeding practice suggests that at a very young age, girls are socialized in the art of restraint. Boys' "appetites" are encouraged; girls' appetites are watched and controlled. Of course, we know how this practice backfires.

As adults, we've seen that the more we restrain our appetites, the more we want to eat. Growing up we were taught to be ladylike. Some of us didn't listen; some of us did. However, all of us got the message: Don't ask for too much, don't want too much and don't take up too much space in the world. Restraint has taken its toll on all women and children. The time has come to say, "No more."

This research confirms our belief in unrestrained eating. Because the body is self-regulatory, children do not need external controls when it comes to eating. Just the contrary is true. External manipulations and controls negatively affect a person's ability to listen to their internal cues. Self-regulation comes naturally!

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