Dessert as a reward, snacks that wreck your appetite, and other parental nutrition myths.
By Lisa Fields
Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Are you still following eating habits that your parents taught you decades ago? It’s time to see if that advice stands up to the test of time — or if some of the things your parents taught you about food are your family’s diet myths.
Diet myths are “handed down for generations,” says Kathleen Fuller, PhD, LMHC, author of Not Your Mother’s Diet. “To undo a myth or belief, it takes some practice.”
Here are five outdated ideas about food that you may have learned from your parents — and the grown-up realities.
1. No snacking! You’ll ruin your appetite!
If you heard this when you were a kid, you should know that the thinking about snacking has grown up. Snacking can be healthy, as long as you choose wisely and don’t wreck your calorie budget.
“It keeps blood sugar stable” and keeps you from getting too hungry between meals, says Debra Waterhouse, MPH, RD, author of Outsmarting the Mother-Daughter Food Trap.
Of course, you can’t just snack with abandon. Those calories count, and you want the biggest nutritional payoff per calorie. So some types of snacks are better options than others.
Update: Try cutting back slightly on meals to allow for one or two daily snacks between 100 and 200 calories. Healthy options include nuts, fruit, yogurt, vegetables with dip, or other low-fat, low-sugar, high-fiber options.
“My general rule is going no longer than four hours without eating something, whether a meal or a snack,” says Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE, CDN, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
2. Finish everything on your plate.
Did you grow up hearing that at every dinner? Did your parents make you stay at the dinner table until you’d finished everything on your plate? And are you still eating that way today? If so, you may not be heeding your body’s signals that you’re full and that it’s OK to stop eating.
“I’m constantly telling my patients, ‘You don’t have to join the Clean Plate Club,'” Brown-Riggs says. “It’s fine to leave a little food over and not eat mindlessly. Get in tune with your body to know when you’ve had enough.”
Update: Try leaving something on your plate. But more importantly, stay in tune with how you’re feeling. Are you full? Are you eating just because there is still food on your plate? Be particularly careful when you’re eating out — the food is appealing, the plates are huge, and you may want to eat it all because you paid for it. “The Clean Plate Club is usually more of a problem when you’re eating out,” Brown-Riggs says. “If there are large portions, ask for half now and have them box the other half, so you don’t run into trouble.”
3. Don’t eat before exercising — you’ll get a cramp. You won’t want to go running immediately after dinner, but eating something small and nutritious 30 to 60 minutes before exercising can help you maximize your workout. “[You’ll get] a quick boost of energy that helps you optimize the exercise session,” says Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, an American Council on Exercise spokeswoman and author of “Eat Your Vegetables!” and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters.
Update: Choose high-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-fiber snacks with moderate amounts of protein in the 100- to 300-calorie range, such as a glass of chocolate milk, a slice of toast with peanut butter, or a granola bar. Fruit is also fine, although it won’t have much protein. (Add a few nuts for that.)
4. Hurry up! Did your parents coach you to wolf down your breakfast every morning so you wouldn’t miss the school bus? If you still eat in a hurry, you might miss your body’s cues that you’re full.
“It takes 20 minutes for the brain to register that you feel full,” Brown-Riggs says. “If you eat too quickly, you can scarf down a lot of food in a 20-minute period, and then you feel stuffed.”
Update: Make a conscious effort to slow down. Taking mini-breaks between bites can also help. “Many people don’t put a sandwich down until they’ve eaten the whole thing, but it will slow you down,” Brown-Riggs says. “Also, putting your utensils down between bites should help.”
5. You deserve dessert today!
You may have learned this habit early, if you earned a trip to the ice cream parlor for a good report card.
Or your parents may have promised you dessert as a reward for eating your broccoli or other vegetables. They had good intentions, but this is a bribe that sends a message that vegetables aren’t appealing on their own.
“We never want to use food as a reward; it sends the wrong message,” Brown-Riggs says. “The wires get crossed, and we no longer eat because we’re hungry; we eat because we were good and we deserve something.”
Update: Stop using food as a prize. Instead, reward yourself with a movie, a manicure, or a phone call to a friend. “It takes some work in terms of behavior change, because you may be doing it mindlessly,” Brown-Riggs says. “Soon, you’ll realize that you shouldn’t just eat because you think you deserve something.” Do reward yourself for your achievements — just don’t make food the reward.
If vegetables are your most-dreaded food group, it’s time to take a fresh look at the many options. Find vegetables you like, and look for appetizing ways to prepare them. “Food should not be a punishment,” Brown-Riggs says. Give some of the vegetables that you couldn’t stand as a kid another chance. For instance, could you roast Brussels sprouts in a little olive oil instead of boiling them? Or stir-fry broccoli? They might taste a lot better than you remember from your childhood.