Why letting children choose what they eat is a recipe for disaster

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I’ve given up television viewing other than DVD’s and rugby, and my main way of keeping in touch of what’s going in the outside world is the radio. Yesterday, I was out taking a walk with the dog and, plugged into my radio, was listening to a news story about an eight-year-old boy here in the UK who is, even at this tender age, weighing in at 15 stones (210 lbs, 95 kg). I read on the web this morning that this boy has broken four beds, five bikes and six toilet seats (mind you, that came from a tabloid but you get the idea). Apparently the boy in question cannot manage the 5-minute walk to school without becoming breathless, is bullied once he gets there. If he gets there: it’s said he misses classes for weeks on end because of his poor health.
During the radio item the mother of this child was interviewed, and it was put to her that her son’s plight was due to her feeding him unhealthy food. She acknowledged this, but then said something like: He won’t eat healthy food. I have to feed him something so I give him what he likes.

The mother is being accused of ‘abusing’ her son, and a paediatrician has suggested that she is ‘slowly killing him’.
This sort of sensationalism does jar a little with me, but I do believe he has a point. Food is obviously essential to life, but it can also be our death.

There is a myriad of reasons for how an eight-year-old boy can end up weighing 15 stones, but to my mind the fundamental problem lies in his mother’s attitude that her son ‘won’t’ eat healthy food and therefore is compelled to feed him what he chooses.
Although a liberal at heart, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to let children decide what they eat. I’m trying here not to sound like a Victorian moralist, but discipline does seem to have gone out of the window a bit over the years. Now, couple this with that the fact that the food industry seems increasingly able to dream up seductive, addictive and taste-bud perverting foods and, quite frankly, we have a recipe for disaster.

Over the years, I’ve seen many children in my practice. Some are ‘picky eaters’, but others even from an early age seem to have very broad palates and, according to their parents, will ‘eat anything’. I’m always keen to learn from others’ experiences, so usually make a point of asking parents what they think may be responsible for their child’s eclectic eating. Invariably, the answer I get is something like Well, he/she has no choice. Basically, what this means is that the child is offered food, and if he or she doesn’t eat it, no alternatives are offered.

Now, starting on this tack early on in a child’s life is generally easier than introducing such measures later on. However, even in older children, while a more draconian eating regime will not go down well to begin with, they usually adapt quite quickly. They have to.

There is a risk that this heavyweight child is going to be taken into care. My heart goes out to both him and his mother. Rather than offering this mother nutritional advice (which she’s probably had her fill of), my suggestion is that she is helped to understand that giving her son free reign to choose what he eats is probably at the root of the problem. Taking a hard line here may be painful for both oft them in the short term, but I suspect with will save them from far more pain down the line.

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