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713: Clean Your Plate

I’ll give fair warning here — if you have any kind of a fraught relationship with food, then following up on any of the research mentioned in today’s episode (or heck, today’s episode in general) could be very triggering. I offer this warning as a fat — and happily so — person myself, and as someone who takes issue with how much obesity is turned into a boogeyman in research.

All of that said, there’s a LOT of research out there about how parents, teachers, child-care workers, and the environment around kids helps develop and nurture their relationship to food. And while a lot of the research is tied back to obesity for headlines or in order to describe health outcomes, the research is still valid, often at least, when viewed through the lens of intuitive eating.

In a study about parenting practices with adolescents published in a 2013 edition of the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that even into the teen years, parents are much more likely to engage in one of two controlling food related-practices, either pressure-to-eat or artificial food restriction.

It doesn’t tend to start in the teen years, however. It starts much younger and the impacts last much longer. As a 2018 paper called “Justifying by Healthifying” found that the clean-your-plate mentality — otherwise called “consumption closure,” creates a mindset where we underestimate the caloric load of a food and overestimate the health value of just about any kind of food if we’re primed to eat most or all of it.

As Parents magazine quoted:

“If children are encouraged to eat when they’re not hungry often enough, they can lose touch with the signals of hunger and fullness and are more prone to overeat,” says Katja Rowell, M.D., a childhood feeding specialist. “I think many adults have lost touch with their own hunger and fullness cues and don’t trust that children can manage their own eating. It helps to remember that only the child knows how much he is hungry for. Some days he may eat a lot, other days less.”

In other words, it’s when we force ourselves – or force kids – to ignore their body’s signals for hunger and fullness, that we start to lose touch with those signals.