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by Pat Barone, CPCC, MCC
“America’s Weight Loss Catalyst”
With the current media and medical research focus on the childhood obesity epidemic, many parents are concerned about their kids’ health, weight and eating habits.
Being overweight as a young child is very different than the same condition encountered as an adult. As many overweight adults will attest, the reaction to excess weight in childhood is extremely important.
In fact, the reaction kids receive may be the one factor that determines if they grow up to be overweight adults. This all-important reaction may come from parents, teachers, family members, role models, mentors and other key people in his/her life.
Most overweight adults can look back and see that, even before they carried excess weight, they were highly sensitive to comments made about their body size and shape. It’s not unusual for an overweight woman today to look back at childhood pictures and realize that she was of normal weight when, at an impressionable age, her mother, father or sibling began to make unfavorable comments about her weight.
A parent’s fear of their child becoming overweight, their own weight-related issues, or their need to control their child’s appearance often transmits the wrong message.
So, if you notice your child is too heavy for his/her body frame or height, what’s the best recourse?
Never put a child on a diet.
That bears repeating.
Never put a child on a diet!
Diets don’t work for adults and they certainly don’t work for children. The resulting deprivation causes pain, feelings of being misunderstood and unloved, and nutrition confusion.
Often kids, after being told their entire lives, “Clean your plate!”, wind up with deep conflict when suddenly told “Don’t eat that! You’ll get fat!”
Kids have one positive inherent factor in their favor if they are to achieve a healthy weight: they are still growing. Focusing on healthier eating habits without saying a word about it can allow a child to grow into their optimal weight. Since kids naturally grow taller and develop muscle as they mature, they have the advantage of being able to grow into a healthier weight.
Here are a few tips that will help kids adopt good eating habits:
Respect kids’ limits and eating patterns. When a child says he/she is full, respect that. Forcing kids to eat, especially with guilt trips like “kids in Africa are starving” doesn’t help the kids in Africa and it certainly doesn’t help your child. It only teaches him/her to disrespect his/her body.
A young child will naturally eat in what we might consider strange patterns. They might eat primarily protein for a day or two, then switch to fruit or veggies, then want bread. Trust that their inherent intuition is OK. They will only look for cookies continually if they’ve been taught that’s acceptable.
Most kids will even serve themselves an appropriate amount but they’ll eat much more if someone else serves them and there’s a larger serving on their plate.
Make healthy food available and plentiful. Whenever a kid is hungry, they should find plenty of choices that are healthy within arm’s reach. Whole grain crackers, small cubes of cheese or turkey, cut up veggies and fruit are easy snacks that should always be on hand. Avoid cookies, processed crackers made from white-flour, and granola bars with sugar content similar to a candy bar. Studies have shown that kids will eat what’s available, so mom’s or dad’s shopping list is more important than what kids see on TV commercials.
Conscious Eating. Model good behavior here. Eat with no distractions like TV, games, or reading. Research shows that kids who watch two or more hours of TV every day are nearly three times more likely to be overweight as children who watch less. The habits we create as children are harder to break as adults. After years of unconscious eating while reading, playing video games, watching TV or studying, a kid has learned to eat by remote control. They tend to eat until their food is gone, ignoring their own hunger signals and internal signals to stop eating.
Protein up at breakfast. Eating breakfast fuels both body and brain and is a vital part of good nutrition for children. Instilling the breakfast habit is valuable and kids perform better on tests when they’ve eaten a breakfast that includes protein and calcium. So, skip the high carb and sugar breakfast cereals and include eggs, peanut or almond butter or lean meats and cheese in breakfast menus.
Take lunch to school. Although many schools are more aware of nutrition than 10 years ago, there is still a lot of extra fat, salt and calories on most lunchroom trays. When you pack a child’s lunch, be sure there are whole grains, fruits, lean protein and calcium available. A good compromise, if your child likes to have a “school lunch”, let them do it once a week.
Make dinner instead of fast-fooding it. Most parents today claim “lack of time” as the reason for grabbing a fast food meal in the evenings. But this appears to be a misleading excuse. Time studies actually show we save time by cooking at home. Meals made at home can be simple and easy – a little protein, vegetables and a multi-grain carbohydrate is the best combination. Contrast the time it takes to put seasoned chicken breasts in the oven and make a salad vs. a trip to the local Chinese takeout and staying home is actually the time saver. Shopping thoroughly and often is the trick here so preparation time is minimal.
Be mindful of the effect you have. Parents often do what’s most expedient in the moment. That’s understandable with the hectic lives we lead today. But, remembering that you are setting your children up for the rest of their lives (in effect “programming” them) is a different viewpoint to take. Everything you teach them as children stays with them for life.
Spending an extra hour a week planning and shopping can have a big impact on a family health now and in the future. The reward is a healthier family with habits that will support their well-being for the rest of their lives.
Remember, however, that our job as parents is to instill good self-esteem in our kids. Raising children to make good choices and trust themselves doesn’t naturally grow from making their decisions for them, nitpicking or criticizing them. Making sure they feel respected and loved is more important in creating good, healthy habits than controlling their environment or limiting their choices.