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Playing Food Police with their children may backfire. So might enrolling them in the Clean Plate Club.

Even parents with the best intentions can mess up their kids’ eating habits, according to Dr. Richard Peterson, medical director of Christus Santa Rosa Weight Loss Institute and an expert in bariatric weight-loss surgery.

“My average patient is about 45 years old, and they’re from the generation that was told to clean their plate because there were starving kids in Africa,” said Peterson, who is also a clinical associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center’s medical school. “Then they’d be told they couldn’t have dessert unless they finished their food. So in order to eat more of what they wanted, they had to eat more.”

No wonder so many of these kids grew up to become overweight adults.

I bring this up because a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics shined a bright light on food-related parenting strategies that can screw with a child’s relationship with food.

The study involved sending a survey home to approximately 3,400 parents of 2,200 kids already participating in the University of Minnesota’s Project Eat, which, since 1999, has studied how dietary patterns developed during adolescence may contribute to obesity and eating disorders later in life.

“All parents want their children to grow up healthy, but when it comes to the foods they eat, the question is, what’s the best way to do this?” said Katie A. Loth, a registered dietitian who does postdoctoral research at a Minneapolis-based school and was the lead researcher of the study.

The survey was designed to determine the effects of techniques the study calls pressure-to-eat (Clean Your Plate) and restriction (Food Police) by asking parents whether they agreed or disagreed with 10 food-related statements, such as, “It is a rule or requirement in our home that my child clean her plate,” and “I have to be sure my child does not eat too much of his favorite food.”

The survey also asked if the children regularly ate breakfast, whether the family took meals together, and how often they went to fast-food joints. And children, who were an average of 14 years of age, completed a survey about their eating and physical activity habits, and had their height and weight taken and their body mass index calculated at school.

After the data were crunched, here’s what they found.

Perhaps the most distressing finding was that so-called food-controlling techniques were common among parents surveyed. More than half reported engaging in them at least some of the time.

Kids whose parents played Food Police were more likely to be overweight or obese than those whose parents did not restrict their access to cookies, candy and other junk foods.

Parents of normal-weight kids were significantly more likely to push their kids to eat more.

Overall, boys exposed to higher levels of food restriction and pressure-to-eat from either parent were more likely to develop unhealthy eating habits, while girls were more likely to engage in extreme weight-control behaviors only if their mothers played Food Police.

Lori Grant is a registered dietitian in the UT medical school’s department of pediatrics. She puts the blame on society and the media for confusing both children and their parents about proper body size.

Grant tells clients to be more careful about the foods they bring into their home.

“I tell them to buy plenty of fruit and other healthy snacks, but then to let their child be free to eat as much of this good food – or as little – as they want.”

Creating the right environment and giving kids the autonomy to make their own choices when they’re young will also make it less likely they’ll feel the need to pig out in the Willie Wonka Wonderland that is modern-day America once they get older and are no longer under your constant supervision.