What Forcing Kids to Eat Looks Like 20 Years Later

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on July 6, 2012

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Make your bed. Clean your room. And eat your veggies!

I often hear parents lump kids’ eating in the same category as other chores. But eating food is different — very different. As we discussed in the other post on rewarding kids with food, the way we feed our children imprints their eating for years, even after they leave the nest.

So what are the long-term effects of forcing a child to eat? Let’s take a look…

The Research
After digging in the research I found a study published in the 2002 issue of Appetite surveying over 100 college students. Of these young adults, 70% said they had experienced forced-food consumption during childhood. Most often than not, the forcer was a parent and the common forced foods included vegetables, red meat and seafood.

The scenario goes something like this: the forcer coerces the forcee to eat the target food for reasons such as health, variety and waste. The most common tactics used were threats such as no dessert or staying at the table. In over half of these cases there was a stand-off lasting an average of 50 minutes!

What is most interesting is the internal conflict the forcees experienced — 31% experienced strong conflict, 41% moderate conflict and 29% slight conflict. Forty-nine percent said they cried, 55% experienced nausea, and 20% vomited. Most of the responses to the experience were negative with feelings of anger, fear, disgust, confusion and humiliation. The forcees also experienced feelings such as lack of control and helplessness.

Will they freely choose “that” food?

When asked if they would now eat the food they were forced to eat in childhood, 72% said they would not. The researcher’s explanation is that when a child finally gives in and eats something he doesn’t want to, he “loses” and the parent “wins.” So later in life, when he can freely choose the food on his own, he chooses to “win.”

Also, forced food consumption that results in gagging, vomiting and overall disgust can cause food aversions. Pickier kids tend to be more sensitive to different textures so being made to eat something that offends them can make that item displeasing for many years, if not a lifetime.

When asked if the forced consumption changed their overall eating habits as adults, over one-third said yes. Of those who said yes, 73% said it limited their diet and 27% said it made them more open to new foods. While this is only one study, and it does not prove cause and effect, it’s important food for thought.

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The Opposite Effect

After studying the feeding literature over the last few years, it’s clear that many of the feeding strategies parents employ have the opposite effect. Forcing and pressuring causes kids to eat less and dislike certain foods. Restricting children makes them want to eat more.

I think a lot of it comes down to distrust. Parents have trouble believing their children will eventually learn to like a variety of foods on their own. When kids are highly food neophobic (afraid of foods), which peaks between 2 and 6, they can be very adamant about new foods, saying things like “I’ll never eat that!” If a parent doesn’t understand the child’s development, and that this is normal and will lessen with time, they’ll be more likely to fight against it making the stage last longer.

So as you can see, eating is different from other habits such as cleaning and brushing teeth. It involves taste, texture, appetite, temperament, listening and trust. It’s not about making or tricking a child eat what’s in front of them, but creating the circumstances that will help a child eat well today, and 20 years from now.

So tell me, were you forced to eat food as a kid? How does it affect your eating today?

Got a picky eater? Get the latest research and tips in my new new e-book From Picky to Powerful

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References

Batsell, R.W., Brown, A.S., Ansfield, M.E., and Paschall, GY. “You Will Eat All of That!”: A Retrospective Analysis of Forced Consumption Episodes. Appetite. 2002, 38 (3), 211-219.

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{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

kylee May 19, 2015 at 6:21 pm

I was forced to eat foods when I was little and I still am but today I was recently told that I couldn’t eat today . Then, I was at my school lunch and I don’t like any of there food choices or there milk but I have nothing else to eat and my mom says that I should just not eat is that healthy or not ?.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 21, 2015 at 5:29 pm

I think its up to you. If that’s the only meal than you might want to try and eat something to fill your belly so your no hungry – especially at school when you’re learning.

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