June 3, 2012

Your Child's Weight: the Parent's Role

I have been getting a lot of questions from friends about feeding their children; particularly on the important topics of healthy eating and weight.  With the obesity epidemic in full-swing combined with our own experiences with weight and image growing up Generation X and Y, along with an awareness of the damage that can be done if these topics are not handled correctly has young parents unsure of what to do at times.  These friends that I know love their children so very much.  Here is the excellent question I received recently:

“I am looking for ways to keep my daughter engaged in a healthy lifestyle, mainly eating habits.  I don't like telling her ‘if you don't want to eat healthy then you don't need anything’, but I­­ find myself going there. I have tried to explain to her about all the benefits of eating healthy, but it's like everything I say to her goes in one ear and out the other. Do you have any suggestions on how I can get my point across and make it stick? I understand she's a kid and naturally kids want to eat junk, but I'm hoping if I raise her awareness early enough she will avoid the mistakes I made and avoid the yo-yo weight issues I have faced my whole adult life.”

I think it is important to understand that kids have different motivations and views regarding food, eating, and weight than adults do.  There has to be a balance between eating “healthy” and exploring, enjoying, and experiencing foods as a child/young adult.  Of COURSE kids want to eat junk food – all humans do.  We have a natural affinity for sugar and fat because our bodies want to survive during lean times.  Except for many of us, there are no lean times. 

One thing that does not work with children or teens as it may with adults is encouraging change by using long-range consequences (You can prevent heart disease!  You don’t want to have high cholesterol!) because they cannot relate; it means nothing.  For many children, especially those involved in sports, using an example that relates to them specifically (You will have more energy for soccer practice; You will have the protein to build muscles for gymnastics) could be more helpful.  Children and adolescents are very immediate and concrete thinkers and this will be the best way to approach nutrition education at this age.  Think about how junk-food is marketed towards your kids; it’s full of colors, characters and FUN.  This is how we need to represent healthier options to them…except there’s very little of that type of marketing going on out there right now for broccoli.  There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple days ago:  Superhero Support for Healthy Eating.  Check it out.  

One of the best resources available on the subject remains a Registered Dietitian named Ellyn Satter who writes about childhood nutrition.  She has a book called “Your child’s weight: helping without harming” that many people find informative.  Basically, she talks about the division of responsibility for eating:  the parent is responsible for providing healthful food to the child and for setting the when/where of meal-time and children are responsible for choosing what and how much they eat.  There are also some great, legitimate resources for parents out there – check out some of these links: 
 http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ (look under “Consumers” for your child’s age group)

I strongly believe we need to avoid at all costs making food and eating about weight for our children.  As many of you know, I was appalled at the children’s dieting book that came out in the fall of this year “Maggie Goes on a Diet” which simply sent the wrong message to kids on the topic of weight.   As soon as we equate popularity, success, or happiness with weight status, we have done our children a disservice and set them up for a life-time of dieting and self-confidence issues.  Parents need to be sure that they aren't passing any of their own struggles with weight or body image to their children.  Studies show that parents teaching through example is the best way to approach the topic: 
Families are key for modeling food choices, healthy eating and leisure activities for their children.  Parents influence children’s environment by choosing nutrient-rich foods, having family meals (including breakfast), offering regular snacks, and spending time together in physical activity, all of which can be critical in overweight prevention…Parents exerting too much control over their child’s food intake or promoting a restrictive diet may cause children to be less able to self-regulate and more likely to overeat when the opportunity is available. 
 (Mahan, Escott-Stump, Krause’s Food and Nutrition Therapy, 12th ed 2008)

Ironically, there was a really great article in “ScienceDaily” two days ago about a study that was done on low-income families that showed better success with parents who led through example instead of punishing or rewarding when it comes to healthy eating.  "Mothers should stop forcing or restricting their kids' eating"…be sure to read it.

The best advice I have on this topic is to involve your kids in the cooking process!  They need the education and ownership in order to make healthy choices a habit.  Take them to the grocery store, have them pick out a recipe to try, get them chopping and stirring.  If they are involved in the process, they may be more likely to consume these foods that they helped make.  Gardening has proven especially helpful in for kids to get more excited about the healthy food they can eat. 

 Kids and adolescents are going to experiment with eating and they’re going to want to break the rules sometimes.  Also, keep in mind that their tastes are constantly changing and developing.  Just because they don’t like something one day doesn’t mean that they won’t like it the next.  From what I have learned, the best thing parents can do is:

  •  Focus on physical activity (not dieting or restricting foods)
  •  Involve children in the process of shopping for and cooking foods 
  •  Set a good example as a parent with eating, activity, and healthy body-image (NO diet talk)      
  •  Continue to offer healthy foods, even if kids aren’t eating them. 

Good luck and great parenting…..

No comments:

Post a Comment