Why parents (and schools) shouldn't ban junk food

Efforts to ban kids from having junk food could have unintended consequences. Here’s what you need to know about setting limits on chips, pop and candy.

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“She had that guilty look from the second I came near her,” recalls Annette Prouse*  of her six-year-old daughter, Ella, when she found her holding a can of Coca-Cola. In an effort to instil healthy eating habits in her children, Prouse, a lawyer and mom of three in Milton, Ont., doesn’t allow her kids to have pop, candy or chips, though she admits that she drinks multiple Cokes a day herself. She hopes her rules will help her kids avoid her bad habits. But it was one of her cans—left out on a nearby living room table—that Ella had snuck off with.

Until then, Ella had never shown an interest in pop, but a few days earlier, her grandma had taken her and her eight-year-old sister, Sophia, out for lunch, “They both came home and proudly told me how they’d had pop,” Prouse recalls. While she says her daughters are usually pretty good at following the rules, realizing that the newly discovered sweet, fuzzy joy of Coca-Cola was easily available in her house was clearly too tempting for Ella.

Prouse’s story doesn’t surprise Victoria-based registered dietitian Jodi Holland. “When some kids are really restricted or feel deprived, they may go towards the tendency of hiding food or, when they do have access to those foods, they’re overeating.” While banning kids from junk food might seem like a simple way to create healthy eaters, the truth is a bit more complicated.

The problems with bans
Issues around banning junk food start with defining what that term even means. For Prouse, it covers fast food as well as products like chips and chocolate bars. While that’s a definition most of us can get behind, where does something like a homemade cookie fall? For Holland, “It depends on the recipe.” She points out that we all have different definitions of what’s healthy. For example, for some people, cheese is a nutritious snack while others would say it’s too high in salt and calories.

bowl of potato chips
When did we start eating junk food?

However parents define junk food, Holland recommends they avoid presenting it as bad. She suggests parents explain junk food as items that don’t have any health benefits, so they shouldn’t be eaten too often. That’s because categorizing foods as “bad” or severely restricting them can make them more alluring. “Whenever children feel deprived, the tendency is to push back and want it even more,” says Sara Dimerman, a psychologist in Thornhill, Ont., who sees children in her practice .

And when kids do get a taste of something forbidden, research shows they can end up overindulging. A 2002 study published in the American Society for Clinical Nutrition journal revealed that girls whose diets and access to junk food were tightly controlled by their parents when they were five were more likely to overeat at age seven. The girls who overate were also 4.6 times more likely to be overweight when compared to their peers who were more in control of their snacking.

But not all kids react this way. Those who don’t want to disappoint their parents might develop negative emotions around eating the banned food. “A child who is very compliant might feel very guilty or ashamed, like they’ve done something bad [when they eat junk],” explains Dimerman.

In some cases, restricting certain foods and labelling them as “bad” also has the potential to scare kids, explains Corinne Eisler, a registered dietitian and paediatric nutrition expert at Leap Therapy for Kids in North Vancouver. She recalls one five-year-old she worked with whose parents had banned sugary foods: “The child actually began to view food with fear.” She explains that young children don’t have the maturity to decipher the degree of the issue and may react to negative labels and restrictions by tightly narrowing what they will eat, sometimes to the point where they refuse to try new foods, even if parents tell them these new dishes are healthy.

While binging or developing severe aversions to new foods is extreme, even sneaking treats can signal an unhealthy relationship with food. “Tightly restricting or banning doesn’t mean that your child will choose a healthy alternative,” notes Dimerman. In fact, they’re likely to opt for sugar and salt if given the chance—say, when they’re at a friend’s house.

School rules
But what happens when you’re not the one imposing the rules? Increasingly, schools are the ones putting limits in place around junk food. In 2005, New Brunswick became the first province to ban the sale of  “minimum nutritional value” food in its public school system. Since then, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario have implemented their own versions of this policy and have banished pop, candy and even poutine from public school cafeterias and vending machines.

There is some evidence that these bans have had an impact on students’ weight. In June of this year, the University of New Brunswick released a study that found that, for each year a child was subject to a school junk food ban, her BMI declined by 0.05 points. That means kids who were at these schools for five or more years were, on average, two pounds lighter than their peers whose schools didn’t have bans.

Some schools are going even further. The elementary school that Prouse’s daughters attend is part of a board that bans candy, pop and some pre-packaged items from packed lunches. “I think it’s the best thing that has happened to kids,” says Prouse, who would like to see this policy expanded across the entire province.

But not everyone agrees. Last year, Ontario’s Durham District School Board made headlines when parents complained that some teachers were confiscating items as varied as chips, string cheese and chocolate chip banana bread despite the lack of any formal rules around junk food in lunches.

While Holland supports a ban around the sale of junk food, “I really think it’s up to parents to decide what goes in their children’s [packed] lunch; they know their kids best, know what types of foods their children are going to accept as well as what types of foods the family has access to and what’s going to be culturally appropriate for them.”

Vilifying specific foods can also unintentionally pass judgment on families that are coping with food insecurity. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, nearly 13 percent of households identify as struggling to afford fresh, healthy meals. These families often turn to more affordable packaged products that many of us would quickly dismiss as junk food. “It’s not a lack of knowledge; it’s a lack of money,” says Eisler. “A child should never be shamed because they don’t have an optimal eating plan.”

Rather than teaching kids that certain foods are bad or making decisions about what kids should eat, Dimerman suggests schools take a more proactive approach, like showing kids how to decipher nutrition labels. “Teach them how to become more objective, and how to evaluate what is healthy and why certain foods are better for you than others,” Dimerman explains, adding that schools are getting better at teaching nutrition literacy. For example, programs like Farm to School Grants help kids in Ontario and BC learn about nutrition and participate in growing and cooking their own food. “Sensitive education without judging or shaming is imperative,” says Dimerman.

Aim for balance and healthy attitudes
Parents can take a similar approach at home, teaching their children balance while also educating them about nutrition. “It’s important for our kids to understand it’s OK to occasionally have a treat, “ Holland says. “It’s also important for them to understand why it’s best to fill up on healthier foods the majority of the time.” She coaches parents to look for opportunities to teach children how different foods make them feel—like when too much Halloween candy gives them a tummy ache or how a healthy lunch leaves them with lots of energy to play.

Eisler believes that parents should provide “reasonable guidance” around junk food, allowing it in moderation—for example, once a week or at birthday parties. She notes that it should never be used as a bribe and that parents should be nonchalant about it, in order to keep treats from being extra tempting.

Also avoid hard and fast details around when and why junk food is available, says Dimerman. “If you say you can’t have ice cream except for Saturday nights, they’re going to figure out another way to get that ice cream,” she says. Instead, she encourages parents to be on the same page and focus on creating a healthy balance.

Plain talk is key if your child starts whining about how a friend gets a chocolate bar as an after-school snack. At Prouse’s house, “We say, ‘The rules are different in different places.’” While her eight-year-old doesn’t like this fact, “She accepts it,” Prouse says. It’s an approach that both Holland and Eisler approve of. “Parents need to establish boundaries,” says Eisler, and then stick with them.

“We think that we’re doing our children a service by forbidding them, but really we should be modelling moderation,” says Dimerman. While she realizes that this can be tricky for parents who adore junk food themselves, she also sees it as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how to exercise willpower. For example, if pop is your weakness, openly acknowledge that and drink it in front of your kids— but perhaps only when you go out socially. “It’s OK to show your children that you’re not perfect.” She recommends against sneaking junk food behind their backs—it’s always only a matter of time until you’re busted.

To help turn kids’ attention to healthy food, regularly include them in meal planning. “Get them involved with packing lunches,” says Holland, “Give them a couple of healthy choices and let them decide from those healthy options.” Eisler encourages parents to involve even toddlers in the kitchen. “It gives them some power,” she says, explaining that giving them agency and responsibility helps children be receptive to healthy eating and trying new foods..

After catching Ella with the can of Coke, Prouse sat down with her and thoroughly explained that she and her siblings aren’t allowed to drink pop because it’s unhealthy. She’d thought that was the end of the matter. Then, a few weeks later, her husband found six half-empty Coca-Cola cans hidden under their bed.

When confronted about the squirreled away pop, Ella denied having anything to do with it, pointing out to her mom that, “Coke is very bad for you.” For now, Prouse plans on keeping a closer eye on her daughter, as well as where she leaves her Coke cans. But she’s staying firm on her pop ban. “No tweaks,” she says. “It’s not healthy.”

*Names have been changed.

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