Disband the Clean the Plate Club?
Dr. Robyn Silverman
Thank you to all of you who have already submitted stories to my body image story website in preparation for my forthcoming book! It is very telling– so many stories have similar themes. This one, which came in recently, hits on a point I want to talk about today: The Clean the Plate Club.
Colleen’s Story: My Mom is a card carrying member of the clean the plate club. I guess that makes me one too. I have always felt like I needed to sneak food since the girls in the house weren’t supposed to really eat “real food.”. My Mom would always say, ‘no don’t eat the meatballs, eat the salad.’ I would think to myself, “but I want the meatballs.” I know now that forcing me to eat the salad only meant that I would eat the salad in front of her and then go back and eat the meatballs when she wasn’t looking. So I wound up eating double. Denying me the food would only make me want it more. Then I would be out with my friends and I would think “Ha! Nobody’s watching so I can eat whatever I want.” “You did not leave the table without cleaning your plate. It was a sin to waste food–as opposed to eat until you are full. It says it in the bible that you can’t waste. My mother would always quote it so it was ingrained in me at a very early age. “It still sticks with me. I say it all the time when I am out with friends. I tell them, ‘I am so full, I couldn’t eat another bite. And they tell me just to take it home. But I say, “no, no, no, I have to eat everything. That was what I was told growing up.’ That is why I continue eating but feeling bad about it. I was told you have to finish everything but told not to gain weight at the same time. ”
What are studies telling us?
(1) Little girls as young as 3 years old are being warned by their parents to watch how much they are eating so that they do not gain unwanted pounds. At the same time, little boys at the same age and size are being encouraged to “eat up” so that they become strong and solid big boys (International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2005). Girls are clearly being given different messages than are boys when it comes to food.
(2) Parents who try to control their children’;s food intake by insisting that their children clean their plate are the more likely to find that their kids, especially the boys, request larger portions of sweetened cereal at daycare (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2008). In fact, in a recent study, preschool aged members ate 35% more fruit loops than those who were not members of the clean the plate clubwhen given an unlimited portion. This interferes with children’s own ability to listen to their bodies and determine when they are full. They begin to be at war with food which can affect their relationship with food and their bodies.
In addition. studies clearly show that families of adolescents with disordered or problem eating tend to overemphasize food, fat, dieting, and weight. An overemphasis of food and food control is associated with a higher incidence of girls eating when they are not hungry. Daughters whose families control food and emphasize diet are more likely to have mothers who are more critical of their daughter’s weight and figure. Not surprisingly, such a family climate is associated with a girl’s greater concern about weight.
Interestingly, when I bring up these issues with some of the girls and women who have been guilted into cleaning their plates, they bring up issues of God and respect for their elders. In fact, when I followed up with Colleen and I asked her if she thought she could change her behavior so she could reclaim ownership of her body she wrote; “Well, how could I go against God’s word? And every daughter knows saying “no” to their Moms is harder than you think.”
I think it is safe to say that “clean your plate” is no longer good advice. No offense to Mom or God. It may have been a good preservation technique during the depression or at times of famine or scarcity, but that does not apply to the lives of these girls. Studies show that once the power struggle is taken out of meal times, children will self correct their under eating, overeating, and general weight problems. It seems difficult, however, for parents to refrain from pushing “one last bite,” “clean your plate” or “you shouldn’t eat so much of that.” Every child is equipped with a hunger gauge with controls how much they should eat. If parents continually override those signals, the child will have trouble tuning in to that hunger gauge and relying on something internal, rather than external, to tell her how much to eat.
What are your thoughts? Does the clean the plate club influence how we feel about food or our bodies? Weigh in.
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