Eating is one of the most basic, primal activities, and humans have been doing it ever since they’ve been around. Nevertheless, and astonishingly, every week or so, scientists issue press releases having to do with eating and food.
Mostly, they’re interested in whatever relationship each new discovery might have to childhood obesity. Now, word comes from the Journal of Consumer Research about a study which seems to be concerned with willpower and self-control. Here is the gist, as paraphrased by Mary-Ann Twist:
In one interesting study, a group of consumers were asked to eat either a healthy or an unhealthy snack. Some of the consumers were asked to count how many times they swallowed while eating the snack. Consumers who counted the number of times they swallowed were satisfied more quickly even if they otherwise had a low level of self-control. Monitoring how much they ate made consumers with low self-control behave like those with high self-control.
The idea here seems to be that focusing attention makes a person feel satisfied sooner with the amount they have eaten, than a person not paying attention. In a way, this makes sense. A person in a TV trance, equipped with an industrial-size bag of chocolate bacon chips, is obviously not devoting any attention at all to eating. It’s just an automatic, mechanical, hand-to-mouth process, and satiation has nothing to do with it.
If eating is separated and performed as a stand-alone activity, with each bite conscientiously chewed and each swallow counted, sheer boredom might be sufficient to bring it to an end sooner. But close monitoring should only be done, the study authors suggest, when the food is from the unhealthy-indulgence side of the spectrum. Doing the same thing with healthy foods can be counter-productive.
In a throwaway line from an otherwise routine article on childhood obesity, Sherl Wilsher noted:
For too long, Western society has used food as a reward and a behavior modifier.
There is something very profound in that statement, which deserves much more careful scrutiny. In developed countries, there is an adult tendency to disrespect a child with food rewards, putting the child in the same category as a dog or a trained seal. Humans are supposed to operate on a somewhat different level. This is something that deserves a lot more looking into.
Parents, as always, play a big role in the questions and answers around childhood obesity. At Stanford University, Dr. W. Stewart Agras has come up with something called the “division of responsibility” (DOR) program, whose object is to educate parents so they will not pressure their children to eat, even if the food is nutritious.
Dr. Agras worked with 62 families where at least one parent was overweight or obese. They all had 2-to-4 year old children, and some participating parents were introduced to the DOR idea, whose core precept is that while parents should take responsibility for the providing and serving of food, the kids take responsibility for deciding how much to eat or even whether to eat at all.
The remaining parents were introduced to the “We Can” program from the National Institute of Health. But, when followed up, these families were doing worse, in the sense that their children had more of a tendency to overeat. The difference seems to show that trying to force kids to eat healthful food is worse than giving them unhealthful food with an attitude of indifference over whether or not they eat it. Basically, the theory holds that children need to be allowed to develop their own inner perceptions of hunger and satiety.
So, now that parents have been alerted to the importance of exercising more control over their children’s diets, this study seems to suggest that control itself is a childhood obesity villain, and that becoming over-involved in the problem can be worse than ignoring it. No wonder parents are confused, baffled, and just plain burned out on trying to help.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Eat dessert first? It might help you control your diet,” EurekAlert, 09/11/12
Source: “Childhood Obesity Is Destruction From Within,” Yahoo! News, 02/23/11
Source: “Forcing Kids to Eat Contributing to Childhood Obesity?,” Counsel & Heal, 09/05/12
Image by Niklas Hellerstedt.