Moderating your children’s consumption of junk food can be tricky: On the one hand, there can be nothing more lovely than going for a family trip to the ice-cream parlor on a hot Sunday afternoon.  On the other hand, our world is saturated with opportunities for parents to provide and children to consume endless quantities of crappy foods.  For parents, navigating this sea of access to junk-food can be difficult and extremely frustrating.  It is in our best interest to raise our children to eat sensibly and healthily.  But how can we do this given the nutritional wasteland that is our supermarkets, convenience stores, schools, and workplaces?

We should start with a definition of junk food.  Junk food is best defined as food which is calorie dense (containing high number of calories per serving) and nutrient-poor (containing trivial or no nutrients in addition to the calories).  If our children fill up on calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods on a regular basis, they risk eating insufficient nutrients (because they’ve filled up on junk) and therefore becoming malnourished.  Alternatively, kids who eat a lot of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods are at a much higher risk of developing obesity.  Most concerning are the kids who, as a result of eating junk food almost exclusively, become both obese and malnourished.

The over-consumption of junk foods has become ever-increasingly problematic worldwide.  Moderating out children’s consumption of these foods will play a really important part of the solution.

Below are 5 recommendations that will hopefully get you started in the process of managing and moderating your kids’ junk food consumption:

1. Consider That There is No Such Thing As Junk Food

I recognize that the above statement contradicts everything I have said so far, but hear me out on this:

There’s an expression coined by Paracelsus, a 15th Century physician, that has become one of the fundamental principles of modern-day toxicology: “The dose makes the poison”.  Any given poison, even the most lethal, can be harmless if the body is exposed to it in a small enough dose.  And even the healthiest substances in the world can be toxic if ingested in high enough quantities (consider what happens if you breath concentrations of oxygen that are higher than what your body requires).

The “dose makes the poison” principle is applicable to the topic of junk food consumption. Eating extreme quantities of chips and chocolates on a daily basis for years will no doubt impair ones health and quality of life in the long run.  However, eating small portions of these types of foods a few times per week is perfectly reasonable, harmless, and some might even argue, healthy.

The context is important as well.  For an energy-malnourished body (think starvation or severe anorexia nervosa), the most healthy substance that can be consumed would be calorie-dense foods.  Furthermore, some elite athletes burn calories so aggressively that the only way to keep up with their energy demands is to consume large quantities of calorie-dense foods (consider what Elite Swimmer, Michael Phelps, eats every day for breakfast).  Whereas many of us need to moderate the amount of calorie-dense nutrient-poor foods we eat, for some bodies/circumstances, the opposite can be the case.

With very few exceptions, any food can be healthy if eaten in the appropriate amount and in the appropriate context.  We need to stop thinking of calorie-dense foods as unhealthy and think instead about the circumstances under which these foods can be part of a healthy overall diet and lifestyle.

2. Beware the Forbidden Fruit Syndrome

The best way to instill in your child insatiable, impulsive and overwhelming cravings for junk food is to outright forbid them from eating it.  We live in a world where junk food is ubiquitously available, and the consumption of which is not always in parents’ control.  Furthermore, there are social circumstances in which strictly banning junk food from your children’s daily life could do more harm than good. One can’t expect one’s child to not eat cake at a birthday party (conditions like lethal allergies excepted, of course).  Inevitably, and whether you like it or not, junk food will be made readily available to your children in the absence of your supervision.  Teaching your children to moderate their consumption is far healthier and more likely to succeed than expecting abstinence.

The bottom line: taking an extreme parenting position on junk food risks your children developing unhealthy attitudes and behaviors around eating.  The results of such an approach can be damaging to their long-term health and well-being.

3. Keep it Out of the House

In my opinion, the most effective way to limit junk food consumption without taking an extreme position (risking the forbidden fruit syndrome) is to have a simple family rule which states: no junk food in the house. Study after study shows that easy access to junk food invariably results in excessive consumption.  If the eating of junk food is limited to locations and events away from home, then naturally, limits are set and quantities are controlled.  A few times per week, the family can walk to a nearby convenience store or ice cream shop and enjoy a treat. The joy of eating a treat can be shared with the family in a reasonable, controlled, and pleasurable context.

4. Keep the Portion Sizes Small

Ask yourself, “when I am eating a slice of the most delicious cheese cake, which bite tastes the best, the first or the last?”  Most people answer that it is the first few bites that are most delicious and enjoyable.  Beyond those first few bites, we tend to go on eating simply because there is more to eat.  Chances are your child will enjoy one small scoop of ice-cream every bit as much, or perhaps even more, than the three scoop-sundae.  And making it a fun family event further adds to the pleasure of the experience.

5. Avoid the Trap of Treats as Rewards

It is so tempting to use treats as rewards for good behavior.  “Clean your room and you can have ice cream for dessert.” “If you behave at the mall I’ll get you a lollipop.” “Finish your vegetables or you can’t have any more coke”.   It works initially. But many parents inevitably fall into a junk food trap.

The setup for this trap has to do with the notion that probably it’s more tempting for parents to use junk food to manage behavior than the junk food is tempting for the child to eat.  The more a parent uses junk to control behavior, the more they become dependent on rewarding with junk to maintain control over the behavior.  Over time, the amount of junk and the frequency with which junk is used goes up to maintain the same level of behavioral control.  Eventually the consumption of large amounts of junk simply becomes the norm.  The parents’ need for the child to behave remains strong, yet the consumption of junk becomes ‘normal’.  In this circumstance, and without anyone necessarily realizing it, the terms have been flipped and now it is the children saying “give me the junk or I won’t behave the way you want me to.”  

I don’t mean to suggest that every family will fall into this trap.  Certainly I have met parents for whom this approach has brought them success.  But more often than not, parents who try this approach find themselves sliding down this slippery slope.

In summary, to help moderate your children’s consumption of junk food, remember first that junk food can be part of a healthy, varied and balanced diet.  Avoid treating junk as a ‘forbidden fruit’. And when offering junk food to your children, do so only occasionally, out of the house, and in small portions.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this topic.  Please share in the comments section below.