NMSU researcher says making kids clean their plates may lead to weight issues

October 13, 2008 by Justin Bannister NMSU News Center

10/07/2008: Business professor Collin Payne (photo by Darren Phillips)

10/07/2008: Business professor Collin Payne (photo by Darren Phillips)

Parents who tell their children to clean their plates may be harming their child’s long-term health. That’s according to research done by Collin Payne, a marketing professor at New Mexico State University’s College of Business. He believes making children finish all of the food on their dinner plates is unhealthy.

“We tried to better understand why people eat what they do and in the amounts that they do,” Payne said about his work with Brian Wensink, a researcher at Cornell University, which was recently published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. “Cleaning your plate may have been a good idea during World War II because of food rationing, but now it’s just a recipe for becoming obese.”

Payne said for the past 25 years, there has been a steady increase in the amount of obesity in the U.S. He believes this trend can be tied to marketing, medicine and psychology, among other factors.

“People want value. They want as much good-tasting food as possible for their money. If one place, usually a fast-food place, can say they deliver more food for the money, people will go there,” he said.

Years of this philosophy of increasing portion sizes has led to bowls and dinner plates that are larger today than in the past. That means it takes more food to make a dish look full and children who are made to eat everything on their plates today are actually eating more than their parents or grandparents ever did, without even realizing it, Payne said.

“It’s a simple solution, give appropriate-sized portions to your kids and let them decide when they are done,” he said.

Another issue is that today’s children have more choices than ever when it comes to things they can eat. Unfortunately, while many of these choices may taste good, most are loaded with sugar, fat and other unhealthy ingredients, Payne said.

The solution is for parents to do a better job at selling or marketing healthy food to their kids, especially those foods with a bad reputation among young people.

“Taste is actually in the eye of the beholder. It’s amazing to see how flexible our tastes are,” Payne said. “If you tell your kids to eat their broccoli, they probably won’t like it. If you tell them that it’s not broccoli, but that it’s really a ‘dinosaur tree,’ they are more likely to enjoy its crunchiness and texture.”

Payne believes if a person has unhealthy eating habits as a child, they are more likely to have the same habits when they are older. Adults are so busy doing so many other things, they often do not realize what they are eating or how much they are eating. Payne said these characteristics may be unique to Americans.

“We asked people in the U.S. how they knew when to stop eating. Their answer was, when the TV show they are watching is over or when their plate was empty. When we asked the same number of people in Paris how they knew when to stop eating, they said they stop when they feel full,” he said.

Payne blames other factors, in combination with poor eating habits for the increase in obesity, including increased time spent watching TV or on computers. He says people are busier now, too, and have less time to exercise.

Payne has conducted similar research, studying behavior at Chinese buffet restaurants. It showed that people who eat with chopsticks tend to eat less. Payne attributes this to the fact that it is more difficult to use chopsticks so it takes longer to eat.

He also found that those who eat facing the buffet tend to eat more. Additionally, those who “scout out” the entire buffet to see what is available tend to eat less than those who simply dig in with the first items they see.

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