Back Forty: Let kids decide what to eat and how much? Yeah, maybe not.

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By Jane Black

For so many of us, the new year begins with vows to eat better. More vegetables. More whole grains. The usual. But this year, some parents are feeling pressure to do something quite different: serve their kids dessert with dinner.

This counterintuitive advice comes from nutritionists, fat acceptance advocates, and influencers promoting an anti-diet philosophy called intuitive eating. For those not familiar, intuitive eating advises people to throw out the dietary rules, judgments, and fads, and listen instead to their body’s cues about what to eat and how much.

Until fairly recently, intuitive eating was aimed at adults, and some evidence does suggest that it can help people struggling with body image issues and, in particular, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Now, though, in part through the magic of social media, the concept has quickly expanded and is being recommended for children. But as any parent knows, children are not simply little adults. Studies show that the frontal lobes of children’s brains, which regulate essential tasks like planning, behavior, and impulsivity, are not fully developed until they reach their mid-20s. The majority of young children, thank goodness, are not battling eating disorders.

Which brings us to serving dessert with dinner. The “rule” for most kids has historically been dinner first, then dessert. But this, say intuitive eating advocates, is exactly the problem. The craving for sugar, they insist, is sharpened when it is meted out as a reward, villainized, or even outright forbidden. A recent post on Instagram declared: “I let my kids eat candy for breakfast, and yes, I’m a dietician.” It received 78,000 likes. 

As a child of the diet-crazed 1980s, I get the appeal. I grew up counting calories, getting on the scale every day and lamenting (or celebrating) what were normal weight fluctuations. Who wants to pass that anxiety on to their kids? But as a journalist who has covered nutrition and public health for more than twenty years, and the mother of an 11-year-old with a ferocious sweet tooth, it’s a bit head-scratching. And dessert with dinner is only the beginning. 

Intuitive eating recommends parents give their young children permission to eat whatever they feel hungry for, and as much of it as they’re hungry for — whether that’s carrots or cookies. Parents are told to never restrict foods. To never make foods off limits. To never refer to foods as bad or good, healthy or unhealthy. In fact, parents are instructed to talk to their children as little as possible about the relative merits of different foods. If we let children decide what they are hungry for, the argument goes, they will over time make smart, nutritious choices. 

But the evidence, or lack thereof, says otherwise. 

While there is a growing body of research on intuitive eating, few studies deal with children or young adults. And none of those studies tested the theory of whether children, left to their own devices, would make nutritious food choices without the guidance of a parent. 

Indeed, the only study that directly tests the hypothesis was conducted in the 1920s. Clara Davis, a Chicago pediatrician, persuaded unmarried teenage mothers and widows to hand over their infants to live in a kind of food-lab orphanage, allowing her to track everything they ate. Davis offered the babies a wide variety of foods and allowed them to eat whatever and however much they wanted. Many children went on “food jags,” eating surprising quantities of beets for a day or two. One child, with rickets, voluntarily chose to drink cod liver oil (which certainly counts as some kind of body wisdom). But the “trick” of the study, according to Dr. Davis, was that she offered only healthy options. She proposed a followup study to test processed versus natural foods, but it was never conducted due to lack of funds. Today, medical ethics rightly make it impossible to recreate her work. 

The term “intuitive eating” was coined by two American nutritionists, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, who in 1995 published a book called Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. The book was written for adults and billed itself as a how-to on freeing yourself from chronic dieting and reconnecting with your body’s innate wisdom. The first mention of children and intuitive eating came in the third edition, in 2012. The chapter was added, Resch said in an interview for my podcast, Pressure Cooker, in part to provide new material to justify a new edition. (Such is the publishing world.) Her recommendations were based to some degree on published research, including a few studies that looked at children, but also on her own struggle with disordered eating and what she has seen in her own practice in Beverly Hills. 

I don’t doubt that Resch’s advice, and many intuitive eating principles, serve her clientele well. There is intense cultural pressure, especially in places like Beverly Hills, to be thin. Sadly, there are plenty of parents and body-conscious teens who certainly would benefit from being told that yes, it’s okay to eat an Oreo — or two or three. 

But it is important to point out that the way parents eat and think about food in Beverly Hills is not representative of the nation as a whole. The median household income there is nearly $117,000 a year, 56 percent higher than the national median. While Beverly Hills parents may have plenty of money to spend on fresh, nutritious food, this is not the case for everyone. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reports that American children ages 2 to 19 get an astonishing 67 percent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods. 

Ultra-processed foods — highly caloric, cheaper than whole foods, and minimally nutritious — are where the lofty ideals of intuitive eating go awry. As journalists and researchers have amply demonstrated, ultra-processed foods are designed to override our bodies’ intuition, to trick us into eating more and craving more. In his book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss recounts that food scientists created 31 distinct formulas for Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, then tested those formulas thousands of times to find the one that keeps you wanting more. That perfect formula? Thirty-eight grams of sugar per 12-ounce can, about 50 percent more sugar than nutritionists recommend a child consume in an entire day.

With little evidence that such tactics work for children, why is intuitive eating getting so much attention? Two groups are fueling its rise online. 

First, there’s the fat-acceptance movement, which aims to eliminate the social stigma of obesity. These voices want to make sure that parents don’t punish body size, saddling children with anxiety or disordered eating that stems from their own obsession with thinness. So the message that only a child knows how much chocolate cake (or Goldfish or gummy bears) he or she needs is a way to counter parents’ exhortations to eat less to stay healthy and/or thin. 

The second is the food industry. After years on the defensive for flooding the market with cheap junk food, intuitive eating offers a chance to write a new story, one in which the diet culture that denies us candy, chips, and cookies is the villain, not the foods themselves. Last year, The Washington Post published an eye-popping investigation revealing that online dieticians were being paid by food trade groups to post videos that, among other things, encouraged parents to let their children indulge in sugar to prevent cravings. One, posted by influencer Jenn Messina, suggested parents let their children eat all the candy they want at Halloween. “This helps decrease the stash and makes it less of a ‘big deal,’” she wrote in the post accompanying the video. “Yes, they may barf. That’s a great life lesson.”

There are many life lessons that children must learn without parental guidance. But in a world full of cheap foods calibrated to make us want more and more, what they eat and how much is not one of them. It’s why parents guide most decisions for our kids. We don’t let them choose their own bedtime or whether to brush their teeth. We don’t let them decide how much TikTok their bodies need. The same should be true for Oreos.