This is Part 7 in a series of posts used to help write my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater
Early in my career, I worked a lot with weight loss. Straight out of college I spent a summer at a weight-loss camp for kids. After becoming a dietitian, I was an outpatient counselor and most of my patients wanted to lose weight. I then took a job at the corporate office at a commercial weight-loss program. Later, when I went back to hospital work, I was asked to counsel weight-loss surgery patients.
Although weight loss followed me everywhere I went, I slowly began to resent the work. I found this hyperfocus on weight strangely hindered each person’s ability to embrace their health. They wanted me to tell them what to eat to lose weight, not to be healthy or feel good. And underneath it all were other issues left to fester. The weight and food, I instinctively felt, were symptoms of other tough stuff not even related to food.
Much of this “weight-focus” has to do with our culture’s obsession with fighting an obesity epidemic. Because of the constant messages about the dangers of obesity (weight-related stories have shot from 500 to 6,500 from 1991 to 2005), weight has become over-valued, when it really belongs as just one piece of an intricate health puzzle.
A Move to Prevention
I purposely moved away from weight loss and turned my focus towards prevention. This is when I began to write about feeding kids and — motivated with children of my own — I felt more comfortable in this realm. Now after years of getting the word out about raising healthy kids, I still feel like it’s not enough. I get emails all the time from parents fearful that they have a big child preoccupied with food. The fear about weight is real and I see it every day.
But it’s not just larger-than-average kids, or those labeled overweight or obese (terms I hate, but they are what they are), but every child that is at risk. As they enter middle school and start puberty, children will compare their bodies to those of their peers and media images, sensing they don’t live up to standards (who does?). Maybe they’ll feel too thin, not overweight but not thin enough, or simply feel fat. Worse yet, it is very common for children to make fun of others of different sizes and shapes — something research shows is a real detriment to health and well-being. It’s no wonder that half of adolescent girls and a third of adolescent boys have utilized unhealthy weight-control behaviors to control their weight.
I believe as parents we have two choices in how we deal with this conundrum.
Route 1: React by Limiting or Manipulating Food
Almost two decades ago, society reacted to an emerging obesity epidemic by making it all about the food and weight, and how both of these things needed to change. This was mostly a reaction and not a well-thought out strategy. Not only has obesity continued to increase, but healthy habits like fruit and vegetable intake and exercise are still far below public health recommendations.
Worse yet, this focus on food and weight has contributed to increases in eating disorders and disordered eating in people of all shapes and sizes. We know that with children, restriction and diets only make matters worse. We also know that “weight talk” in the home is not the way to go for kids. After reviewing the research, the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly states that:
These findings and others suggest that dieting is counterproductive to weight management efforts. Dieting also can predispose to eating disorders…The focus should be on healthy living and healthy habits rather than on weight.
And even when parents have all their ducks in a row, their kids still might be affected by our weight-obsessed culture. So every parent needs to do more.
Route 2: Be Mindful About Food Relationships
The reason that focusing on food and weight doesn’t work is it fails to address root causes. Like all those clients I saw early in my career, there really was more to their eating than met the eye. I believe at the root of how and what a person eats is their relationship with food. When it comes to prevention, focusing on this relationship is vital. And when problems arise, digging further to discover what went wrong is key.
In my book, How to Raise a Mindful Eater, I define 8 Principles that give parents an excellent shot at raising a child with a healthy relationship with food. This helps children not only grow into a weight that’s right for them but decreases the risk of developing maladaptive eating patterns that negatively affect health and quality of life. And best yet, it helps them come to truly value healthy habits (not overnight, but over time).
This book is geared towards kids but it is really is for the whole family. We are all influenced by society’s weight obsession. We all receive the constant messages that there is something wrong with our inclinations towards food and our bodies. It’s simply not true!
Raising healthy kids is not about getting them to eat broccoli, consume perfect portions or be at a size the culture deems acceptable. No, it’s about helping children discover healthy ways to relate to food and their bodies that enhance health, and bring real joy to their lives. It’s about raising a generation of kids to be truly healthy (inside and out), so they don’t have to suffer like many of us did growing up. No, my friends, this new generation can be free.
How to Raise a Mindful Eater Post Series
1. Obstacles and Benefits to Raising Intuitive/Mindful Eaters
2. The Importance of Self-regulation and Stress Management
3. Myths About Food Addiction That Keep it Alive
4. The Real Reason Children Crave Carbs
5. The Power of Paying Attention at Meals
6. How to Build Your Child’s Self-Control Muscle
7. How to Keep the Weight-Obsessed Culture from Harming Your Child’s Relationship with Food
8. My New Book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater [Next]
Want this series plus more content, expert interviews, and stories? Check out How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food