Should You Let Your Kids Eat Junk Food?

As the staggering rate of childhood obesity continues to climb, many parents are trying to counter the influence of genes, peers and pretty much the entire marketing industry by strictly managing their kids' diets. In many homes, candy, soda and chips have been entirely banished in favor of the wholesome, unglamorous offerings of the organic fruit aisle.

But is forbidding junk food the best way to keep kids healthy?

Writer Laura Benneth doesn't think so. In "My War Against Food Nazi Moms," Bennett points out that far from arming their kids with healthy eating habits, health-obsessed parents deprive them of essential lessons about moderation and good decision-making. The child that rarely encounters junk food will desperately gorge itself on sugary, fatty treats when given the chance. The adult that never learned to moderate is prone to over-eating and other addictions.   

So how can parents protect their children's health? Is keeping junk food out of the house the best way to teach kids about nutrition? Or does banning junk invest unhealthy food with the thrill of the forbidden? Does sheltering kids stunt their ability to make good decisions?

AlterNet commentators had a lot to say about these questions and more.

Many readers agreed with the Laura Benneth, arguing that giving kids space makes them more responsible. Dyolfknip claims that his mother's permissiveness helped him develop important life skills:

When I was 15 years old I asked my mother if I could have a drinking party at our house … Since I had never up till this point been really drunk I just kept wanting more and more and more, until I realized that I was hanging over a toilet vomiting with such ferocity that some of it was splattering back onto my face … I cannot thank my mother enough. That torment is impressed upon my mind and when I drink now (and ever since) it is never to excess. It took till second or third year university for most of my friends to fully appreciate this lesson.

Realmuzik agrees that teaching kids moderation is key:

Moderation is what must be emphasized in teaching children how to be good eaters and discretionary food consumers. Kids indeed need to be taught that there are reasons why they can't have "junk food" treats at their beck-and-call demand. However, they should be treated as treats/rewards rather than be deprived of them entirely. 

Overseas writes that even their children's doctor is wary of entirely denying kids junk food:

We asked [our pediatrician) about nutrition …  What he found was … the more kids have Nazi parents on food the less they can self-moderate. In fact, studies in preschools show that if good and bad food is placed out for grazing over a period of a month kids will take a balanced diet.

According to Mom1, while it's important to guide your kids towards healthy eating habits,  it's much more important to help them develop good decision-making skills:

I'm into the organic stuff a fair bit now, but I don't plan to ever ban the junk because I have had visiting kids in my home from the exact scenario the writer described, and experienced the same thing! I want my kids to see it as 'no big deal' -- something they know how to manage.

Lady L brings up the point that our obsession with food is unhealthy:

I'm all for healthy eating, and I despair almost daily of my Aspie son's extremely limited palate, but like anything, focusing on whether everything you eat provides perfect nutrition is, well, unhealthy.

DeBear takes the argument a step further, pointing out that over-managing our kids is symptomatic of a larger surveillance culture in the U.S.:

All it takes to destroy kids is an oppressive surveillance culture backed by white-male dominant paramilitaries ... And we wonder why our kids go off to university and go batshit.

amazingatheist also argues that our health-obsessed safety culture has gone too far:

The assault on food is just another assault on liberty from the pseudo-compassionate you'll-be-healthy-whether-you-like-it-or-not crowd … The agenda of these self-appointed arbiters of everyone's health is to kill us all with kindness--not a literal death, but a spiritual death. They want to siphon every last drop of fun and indulgence out of existence as part of a vast anti-hedonistic philosophy that holds collective health as being more valuable that individual choice.

But many readers disagree. After all, isn't it a parent's responsibility to protect their kids' health?

Naoma highlights the advantages of teaching your kids to eat healthy;

Years ago I had someone leave their child with me for a day. My daughter was used to eating only healthy foods -- no white bread, no snacks, etc. This "visitor" proceeded to go to the refrigerator wanting snacks and could not find anything to eat. I said we eat at regular times and no snacks. He could not wait to leave with his parents the next day. I still eat healthy -- no white bread, fructose or palm oil in any food. And I read every label. I am very healthy and so is my daughter.

Ladyoracle points to the terrible health problems many kids face as a result of eating too much junk:

Too much [junk food] can lead to childhood obesity and diabetes, and that is serious. Younger and younger kids are having hypertension and problems like that, which are linked to unhealthy food and being sedentary. Those lunches might be fine for the kids if they are active and eat well overall, but the writer goes too far to other extreme championing the cause of less healthy food, and I am left wondering if the writer doesn't protest a bit too much?

According to Sunnydaze, it's counterproductive to attack parents who keep their kids away from junk food:

It seems like the new attack is on those parents who are trying to back away from the junk food, from the chemically treated foods and the garbage often called food. Kids are getting thousands of messages every day that encourage them to eat junk food and at the same time are getting very little support or education on healthy eating and lifestyle. Of course the kids are going to go for the junk food, its filled with chemicals like MSG that would make you think cardboard tastes great! Its full of sugar and fat as well. This is an uphill battle for a parent so its extremely hard when you have other adults working against you and playing good guy by feeding the kid junk food and having no respect for your parenting choices.

But lizryan points that out it's in fact ‘food nazi parents' who make things harder for others to make the best decisions for their kids:

Where I live, food-nazi-momism is a popular lifestyle. "You'd let your kid EAT that?" is not viewed as an impolite question here, even when the answer is self-evident. "Crunchier than thou" is practically a religion. So, although I try to give my kids reasonably healthy things to eat, I make a point of politely backing up the would-be nutritional advisors when I encounter them. One mom (a total stranger) saw me buying the organic version of GoGurt -- that's yogurt in a tube -- at the grocery store, and admonished me, "That stuff has no nutritional value at all! It's just like pudding!" That, of course, prompted me to reply "Oh yes! Pudding is next on my list. Do you know which aisle it's in?" :-)

Let's continue the discussion. Is it criminal to let kids eat junk food, considering the child-obesity epidemic? Or should parents stop playing health-police? Has our safety culture gone too far?  More generally, what's the best way to teach kids the importance of eating healthy, enivornmentally sustainable food, without killing all the fun?


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