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Why You Should Let Your Kids Eat (Some) Junk Food

KNWA via NBC Today -- You want them to eat food that can be peeled, chopped or juiced. They want something with sprinkles, sugar and enough fat to make it gooey and rich.
KNWA via NBC Today -- You want them to eat food that can be peeled, chopped or juiced. They want something with sprinkles, sugar and enough fat to make it gooey and rich.

Most every household wages the parent vs. child battle over junk food. But it doesn’t have to be that way, experts say.

Charlotte Markey,a health psychology professor at Rutgers University, believes it’s better for parents to let children occasionally eat potato chips, candy and other calorie-laden salty and sweet snacks rather than trying to eliminate them from their diets all together.

“I’m certainly not saying that we should load our kids up on junk food,” Markey, author of “Smart People Don't Diet: How Psychology, Common Sense, and the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently,” told TODAY Parents.

“But we don’t want to make it so off limits that it starts to have sort of a mystique or appeal.”

As a grad student at The Children’s Eating Lab at Penn State University, Markey saw first-hand the results of what happened when families banned junk food at home. Researchers first asked parents whether they allowed certain snacks, then brought their children into a room filled with those temptations as part of an experiment. The researchers then made an excuse to leave the room and watched what happened.

Time and again, the kids whose parents were very restrictive with snacks ate more treats than other kids and tried to “make up for lost time” as soon as they had access to the “forbidden foods,” Markey recently wrote in Psychology Today.

The lesson for parents is that tight restrictions on junk food seem to backfire, Markey noted.

“It’s well intentioned, I understand,” she said. “What we really want to work on is… navigating (food choices) in a way that doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding all junk food or making it a battle.”

When it comes to her own two kids, ages 7 and 8, Markey keeps some sweets in the house, which she makes available for dessert. She tries to let her children feel like they some control over portion size, which she has found works better than saying, “No you can’t have that.”

Markey advises parents to explain to children why it’s not good to eat junk food. She also believes negotiation and tradeoffs are part of the process. Markey lets her kids put light Cool-Whip on fruit, for example, because that makes them eat more nutritious berries. Parents can offer baked instead of fried chips, she said. They can say, “You can have some pretzels, but let’s also have carrots.”

Figuring out exactly how much junk food is OK can be tricky at a time when there’s growing concern over kids’ weight. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

Meanwhile, junk food—skillfully marketed and packed with salt, sugar and fat—holds powerful appeal.

The key to helping children make good choices is to expose them to nutrient-packed foods from an early age and teach them appropriate portions, said Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York and author of “Younger Next Week.”

She also believes allowing kids to keep a few of their favorite snacks at home—preferably on a high shelf and behind closed doors—can prevent them from feeling deprived.

“No kid should have to feel guilt or shame when having a treat, especially if he or she is in good health and at a healthy body weight. Life is too short,” Zied said.

Still, there should be some limits about how much candy, cookies, ice cream, and chips you keep at home—and they may be too much temptation for some children, so it's important to help kids decide what's right for them, she added.

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