Can Kids Make the Right Food Choices?

In 1928, a pediatrician put 15 children in a hospital ward to do a controlled study on their diets. It turned out that when left to their own devices, the kids chose healthy, nutritionally balanced diets. Dr. Sydney Spiesel talks with Madeleine Brand about whether that study can be applied to modern children.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News it's DAY TO DAY I'm Alex Chadwick. Hey, kids, you know mom and dad fret about what you eat? High fructose corn syrup in everything. An epidemic of childhood obesity; that means fatsos. Well, suppose mom and dad just relax and let the kids decide what to eat? That advice actually comes from a study conducted way back in 1928. It's gotten some new attention recently and it piqued the interest of DAY TO DAY medical expert Dr. Sydney Spiesel. Dr. Syd is a pediatrician. He comes to us from the online magazine Slate, and he spoke with my colleague, herself a mom with young kids, Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Welcome back to DAY TO DAY, Syd.

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Yale Medical School): Thank you, Madeleine. Always nice to be here.

BRAND: Okay, now this just goes against the grain of every motherly fiber that I have to actually let my kids choose what they want to eat. Why - why are we mothers so controlling about what our kids eat?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, I don't know. I mean one thing is there's the worry that the kids are going to choose not a very good diet for themselves, but there's also some impulse to just control things, that's part of it I think.

BRAND: Just part of being a mom.

Dr. SPIESEL:

BRAND: Well, tell us about this experiment. Because indeed, it sounds quite radical. Back in 1928, and conducted by another radical notion, a female pediatrician.

Dr. SPIESEL: Yeah, it was a young pediatrician named Clara Davis who initially worked in Cleveland, later went to Chicago, and who really kind of set herself up against the ideas of medicine at the time that also required a lot of control. She believed profoundly in the idea of the wisdom of the body, that if children were simply offered a choice of foods, they would automatically choose healthy foods that would meet their requirements and even correct some nutritional deficiencies that they had.

BRAND: Well, tell us about the food that she offered them.

Dr. SPIESEL: She offered them food that we would not probably think about offering kids now. Baby pleasers like turnips and cabbage and spinach and some meat products that - bone marrow, sweet breads, brains, liver, kidneys. Now, she also offered other vegetables, a wide range of other vegetables, fruits, some whole grains, eggs, beef, a lamb, chicken. There were a total of 34 different things, which - some of which were provided either raw or cooked. And there were no candy, soda, ice cream on that list.

BRAND: And what happened? What happened to the children?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, it was fascinating. There were 15 kids who were all started at about the age of weaning, and they, all 15, chose unique diets. Every - there were - no two diets were the same. And the kids might binge on something. Some kid might go especially for eggs at some meal. But you know, by the end of a day or a couple days, the kids always chose a completely nutritionally adequate meal. Nutritionally adequate and adequate in caloric needs by the tests of the time, and even in fact pretty much by today's tests.

BRAND: Well, lets fast forward to the present, and I'm wondering if we can use the results of her experiment on our own children - not - not lock them up in a hospital ward and feed them sweetbreads necessarily, but trust our children and let them eat what they want and if that would work out now in 2006.

Dr. SPIESEL: It's something that to a large extent I recommend to families, and I actually do think it works out. But you have to understand that there are foods out there that are probably too rich in fat, too rich in salt, too rich in sweets, that appeal to certain innate tastes in people. You know, Clara Davis made a point of saying that her trick was that she didn't offer these things to kids. She just offered what she regarded as, as a panel of healthy ingredients for them to assemble.

BRAND: So she wasn't saying choose between the sweet breads and the Twinkies?

Dr. SPIESEL: Yeah, exactly right. I don't know what would have happened, but I have a guess.

BRAND: Both sweet, but in entirely different ways. Dr. Sydney Spiesel is a pediatrician; also a professor at the Yale Medical School, and his article on letting children eat what they want is at Slate.com. Thanks, Syd.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you.

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