We're extremely hard on kids who don't fit into society's concept of what they should look like. We criticize fat children for their appearance and lack of willpower. Well-meaning parents, trying to protect their children from ridicule and shame, use the wrong tactics. Research by E.M. Satter, a registered dietitian in Madison, Wis., and the author of books on eating and feeding habits, indicates that parents who coerce their children into following strict rules about what and when they eat actually make matters worse by interfering with children's innate ability to control their own food intake. These children become less able to recognize feelings of fullness as they become more preoccupied with whether they're allowed to eat a particular food. Sadly, this often leads to additional weight gain. But there are things that families can do to turn things around. Here are just a few.
1. Get physical.
Plan a family bike ride. Walk instead of drive when you can. Be a role model; find an activity that you enjoy and do it several times a week. Active parents are six times more likely to have active children. If your child excels at or loves a sport, encourage her to continue with it, but don't push a child into competitive sports if she doesn't like them.
2. Limit sedentary pursuits with age-appropriate nonfood rewards.
For example, you could reward a six- to eight-year-old with stickers or an older child with a book or teen magazine when she shifts away from sedentary behaviours. Studies by Dr. Leonard Epstein, a behavioural medicine specialist and pediatrics professor at the University of Buffalo who is also widely regarded as a visionary in the field of childhood obesity, show that reinforcing rather than restricting behaviour seems to work best. His study of children aged eight to 12 shows that kids who were rewarded for being less sedentary lost more weight than those who were reinforced for being more active.
3. View the issue of your child's obesity as a family challenge.
Research by Epstein shows that involving the entire family in the treatment significantly improves the child's chances for success. His weight-management program includes nutrition education, advice and guidance. The program includes the “traffic-light diet,&" in which red foods (such as junk food) are limited, yellow ones (like cereal) are consumed more often but with caution, and green foods (mostly vegetables) are eaten almost anytime. Epstein's program also teaches obese children how to monitor their food intake and deal with eating urges, and it shows the entire family how to make wise food choices and provide support for one another. But the family should avoid singling out the overweight child with “special&" low-calorie meals. Making him eat salad while everyone else eats pizza will just make him feel badly and sneak food. Instead, control the serving sizes and let your child ask for more.
4. Use family mealtimes to reinforce healthy eating habits without haranguing.
Although many of us grew up with the parental decree “If you want dessert, clean your plate,&" research indicates that all this message does is make the end result – dessert – more attractive to a child. In a 1992 study by J. Newman and A. Taylor that was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, children identified snack foods, such as cereal and nuts, as moderately attractive. The researchers told the kids that they could only have a snack (cereal) if they ate the other food (nuts) first. Amazingly, the reward food (cereal) became more attractive and the nuts less attractive. Bottom line? It's better to say “Eat your vegetables and then your dessert&" than to say “If you want dessert, eat your vegetables.&"
5. Teach healthy eating in the kitchen.
Let your child help prepare cut up vegetables and fruits to leave out on the kitchen counter. Remind your kids that these foods are there, but don't comment on their health value – just leave them as an option. Find recipes for low-fat, yogurt-based dips to make the vegetables more appealing and be on the lookout for low-fat versions of your family's favourite recipes.
6. Be mindful of the messages you inadvertently send out about food.
Don't use food as a reward or punishment. (For example, don't tell a child he'll get a cookie if he finishes his homework.) Never put a child on a diet. (Shifting eating habits is a long-term family project.) For more on this read Should my child go on a diet?) And don't force a child to eat.
For more on taking control of child obesity pick up a copy of the October 2004 issue of Canadian Living Magazine - "Sizing Up Our Kids" introduces three Canadian health programs that are working to reduce the child obesity epidemic.
Dr. Barry Simon is a Toronto psychiatrist and program director of www.mindfulliving.com.