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Children mimic your behaviors!

Contrary to popular belief, children hear what you say and see what you do.  Your behaviors and comments can leave a lasting impression.  Even your body image or weight concerns can be passed on to your kids.  Evidence shows that stressing thinness and weight control promotes eating disorders, low self-esteem, decreased body image, and weight bias in children.  Furthermore, eating behaviors linked to a higher risk for obesity are known to develop very early in life.  A 2001 study showed family food environments and attitudes around food and eating affect even preschool-aged kids’ eating behaviors.  You may think youngsters don’t pick up on your drastic dieting or negative comments you make about your body like older children, but they do!

Several studies show that restrictive feeding can impair a child’s ability to regulate their intake, resulting in overeating and weight gain.  Worrying about your own weight can influence your feeding style.  For example, forbidding high calorie foods or sweets in your home can result in your child sneaking food or feeling deprived and overeating when given the opportunity.  Overly controlling or eliminating fun foods simply doesn’t work with kids – balance is key.

Have you ever found yourself saying out loud:

“I have got to lose weight, I am getting so fat”

“I am going to be good and skip lunch today”

“No more desserts for me, I don’t deserve it”

If so, you may want to censor your comments and think before you speak.   Remember, your words could promote your child’s weight gain!

As a parent, you can model  “good for you” behaviors without fixating on weight.  There’s nothing wrong with guiding your child towards adopting healthy habits that will benefit him or her – that’s part of your role!

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to promote a healthy weight for yourself while empowering your child.

DO:

  • Be physically active and limit your own sedentary activities
  • Aim to eat when feeling physically hungry
  • Have a neutral view about all foods
  • Stock a range of nutritious foods in your home and choose these options more often
  • Offer balanced family meals as much as you can
  • Choose to talk about yourself and others with respect and appreciation

DON’T:

  • Get caught up in the latest fad diet or encourage your child to diet
  • Skip meals
  • Eliminate all sweets or high calorie foods from your home
  • Use food for rewards or punishments for yourself or for others
  • Eat while standing up or distracted (may lead to eating mindlessly)
  • Emphasize effects of unhealthy eating
  • Focus on anyone’s weight, especially yours or your child’s

Bottom line:  You are your child’s biggest role model – do you want your child viewing and treating their body the way you do?

Contributing Author:  Katherine Fowler, MS, RD, LDN

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“Don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it.”

How many times have parents heard this classic line?  Friends, grandparents, teachers, and pediatricians use this solution for parents who are concerned with a multitude of childhood behaviors. 

  • My child is wetting the bed!  Oh, she’ll grow out of it. 
  • My child won’t eat vegetables.  Don’t worry, my child did the same…and he grew out of it!

When it comes to infant obesity, this advice may not be an effective or helpful response.  A recent study in The Journal of Pediatrics looked at a sample of infants, aged 6 months, and identified a 16% rate of obesity among them.   Babies who were obese at 6 months, were still likely to be obese at 24 months.  And so our national childhood obestity problem begins.

What causes obesity in infancy?  Although it is complicated and not fully understood, the following are potential parenting behaviors that may encourage the path toward infant obesity:

Inappropriate feeding practices:  The methods and practices in which we feed babies may contribute to obesity, such as:  adding cereal to the baby bottle to encourage a baby to sleep through the night; improper mixing of formula which may result in a concentrated calorie source; forcing an infant to “finish the bottle”; and feeding a baby “all day long” are just some of the red flags that a baby may be fed inappropriately.

Missing infant cues:  Babies let their parents know when they are full–they turn their heads away, fall asleep, or pull off the breast or bottle.  Likewise, they let their hunger be heard…by crying!  Confusing these signals or worse, ignoring them, can result in overfeeding.  Paying attention and accurately reading infant cues will help parents feed their baby enough, but not too much.

Confusing infant cues:  A crying baby doesn’t always mean a hungry baby.  Parents may be confused by their baby’s signals, misreading boredom, a wet diaper, or tiredness, for hunger.  Interpreting crying and/or discomfort as a sign of hunger can lead to overfeeding a baby.

Starting solids too early:  Many new parents feel the pressure from outside influences to introduce solids early.  Or perhaps they are under-informed about how and when to begin solid food.  The timing for solid food introduction to infants is generally between 4 and 6 months.  Following a guideline for starting solids can help parents stay on track with their baby’s nutritional needs and developmental progression.  Starting too early can pose the risk of overfeeding, and overfeeding can lead to obesity.

Lack of nutrition knowledge:  Many parents lack the information and confidence to feed their baby, and may not have the resources to seek out this information.  This lack of knowledge may lead to the presentation of unhealthy foods, an inadequate balance of the important food groups in the diet, and feeding practices that encourage excess weight gain. 

Feeding your baby, and doing it well, sets the foundation for the overall health of your baby.   In order to have a positive impact on childhood obesity, parents need to pay attention to food selection, timing, and the attitudes and actions they use in the high chair.

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They say bad habits start young…

We have discussed many of the practices and behaviors that can contribute to childhood obesity already, from too much soda consumption and not enough fruits and veggies to portion distortion and excess screen time.  There are other practices, independent of actual food selections and portion sizes, that can evolve into habitual behaviors.  These behaviors may take on a life of their own and when they do, can be a contributor to childhood obesity.

The Sneaker. “My mom yells at me if I snack in between meals.  But I am so hungry at night…when my parents go to bed, I go to the pantry and get the box of cereal.”

The Hoarder. “I hate being hungry, but mostly I feel hungry, especially at lunch.  I carry extra granola bars and crackers in my backpack at school and store them in my locker.  Oh, and I have some candy hidden in my closet, too…. just in case I get hungry.”

The Hider. “My parents are really focused on eating healthy and exercising—they never eat anything bad for them.  When I want bad foods, I definitely make sure they don’t see me eat them, because I would get in trouble or they would dissapprove.  It stinks to eat alone, but that’s the only way I can eat the foods that I like.”

The Offsite Overeater“We never have anything good to eat in my house, but when I go to Johnny’s house, his mom has everything!  I just can’t help myself…”

As adults, many of you can probably identify with some of these feelings and behaviors…maybe these remind you of your own childhood struggles.  The seeds for the above behaviors are planted at a young age.  Parents have the difficult job of balancing healthy eating and food with food security.  How can you assure your child is secure about food, is getting enough to be satisfied, and is avoiding the bad habits that can sabotage healthy eating and weight?

Be a great provider:  Stock your kitchen with a balanced variety of foods.  Avoid the extremes in food—all healthy or all “junk food”.   Prepare enough food at mealtimes to satisfy your family’s appetite, and keep a schedule for meals and snacks—this helps avoid excess hunger.

Avoid “good” and “bad” food labels:  Positive and negative food labels can confuse children and set up conflict in their minds—how can my teacher eat “bad” food?  How can this food be “bad” when it tastes so good?  It’s best to keep a neutral attitude about all foods.

Tune into hungerHunger varies with children and children want to eat when they are hungry.  Putting off hunger can lead to overeating—either in an obvious way or in a secretive way.

Family-style meals:  Do you want your child to eat what they need and leave the table satisfied?  Offer a variety of food groups in serving platters and bowls, and allow your child to determine if and how much food they will consume.  You get to determine the health and quality of the foods you serve.

Encourage eating in the open:  Don’t shame your child if they want to eat.  Help them find a satisfying snack, and if able, sit with them while they eat it.  Children should not have to hide when they want to eat in order to avoid a parent’s disapproval.  There is no shame in eating; we all have to eat to live.

Address bad habits openly:  Don’t be afraid to speak to your child lovingly about bad habits.  You might learn that your child is not eating enough or properly…which is something you can work with your child to solve.  Alternatively, your child ends up navigating the situation on his own, and perhaps in an unhealthy and unsuccessful manner.

Why Weight? to help your child prevent the damage that can spring from bad habits?  It’s up to YOU.

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We’ve all heard the saying, “you are what you eat.”  Is your child the proportions of his/her portions?  Research shows that increased portion sizes may be associated with childhood obesity because calorie intake also increases.  In fact, 40 years ago, the size of the largest fast food burger, fries, and soda is the same size as the smallest meal available today.  These super-sized meals may be super-sizing our kids. 

Perception deception The way our children (and parents) view food is influenced by savvy marketers, in part.  Views also reflect a history with food and eating, current trends in nutrition, cravings, and peer influences.  Don’t believe everything you see and hear about food— the term “healthy” can be over-used and misleading.   Eat at home as often as possible, and be sure to sift through nutrition information by using credible sources, such as a Registered Dietitian (RD).   

I can’t get no…satisfaction  Studies have shown that, despite an increase in calories, bigger portions don’t help kids feel full and don’t result in less eating later.  Also, foods that are low in nutrients (empty calories) don’t satisfy in the long run, and sometimes cause increased hunger later.  Focus on providing nutrient-dense foods regularly, so that these become the staple of your child’s diet. 

Proper portions  The USDA provides consumers with a guideline for portions.  Be sure to look at the child-specific guidelines—they are different than the adult-based ones.   Also, beware of words that warn of portion distortion– value meal, combo, ultimate, tub, supreme, biggie, deluxe, and super-size—it may be tempting to think more is better, but in this case, more is more calories.

To ration, or not to ration? Teaching your child to be aware of portions is important.  Helping them visualize amounts can be positive, but measuring them can soon become negative, if restrictive.  Family-style feeding  appears to be more conducive to normalized portions and eating patterns, than pre-plating your child’s meal.  Picture these to help kids choose healthy portions:

  • a deck of cards for meat or fish
  • 3 dice for cheese
  • a lightbulb for rice and pasta
  • a baseball for fruits/veggies, milk, and breakfast cereals
  • a poker chip for oils, salad dressings, and other fats
  • a hockey puck for biscuits and muffins
  • a CD for waffles and pancakes

Step up to the plate– Serve meals on smaller dishes to create the perception of a full plate.  Creative ideas like bento boxes  and condiment cups in measured sizes can also be a fun and easy way to serve kids at school and home.  Take the guesswork out of meal portions by following this portion plate guideline:  divide your meal plate like this:  ½ fruits and vegetables, 1/4 lean protein, and 1/4 whole grains.

Why Weight?  to begin teaching your child about normal portion sizes and to make your child aware of restaurant/fast food portion traps?   Arm your child with accurate perception and awareness when it comes to food portions—YOU can help your child determine portion reality—before they bite.  Why Weight?

 

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Hunger is a primal force, and if left unattended, can create an unhealthy array of habits and eating patterns that can contribute to obesity.   We are born with a natural sense of hunger, an ability to recognize it, and a desire to quench it pretty effectively.  Babies expressly tell us when they need to eat—they cry.  Toddlers tell us by whining, or “melting down”.  Children coming home from school may tear into the refrigerator or pantry, “starving” and desperate to eat.

By adulthood, folks generally have figured out how to manage their hunger–some respectfully honoring their body’s signals and feeding it when the telltale signs emerge.  Others have strategies that help them manage their hunger and ultimately their weight–healthy techniques and not-so-healthy ones.  In my observations, children are not inclined to use the delay tactics and strategic distractions common to adulthood management of hunger.  Hunger, for many children, is POWERFUL.  Naturally, children feel hunger and they seek food. 

Also, children are in the dynamic process of growing and hunger prompts them to eat.  Ever hear of the teenager that won’t stop eating?  How about your friend, the mother of that teen, who is off to the grocery store every two days, just to keep the kitchen stocked?  Children are able to satisfy their hunger, and become self-sufficient at making choices for themselves.  Often, we adults fail to appreciate the power and influence of  hunger in a child. 

What does hunger have to do with childhood overweight or obesity? 

The degree of hunger and the responsiveness to hunger plays an important role in childhood overweight.   Intense hunger, or over-hunger, can occur as a result of long stretches without food, meals that don’t provide enough energy, or an improper balance of nutrients.  Just as a car without gas sputters down the road until it eventually stalls, likewise our bodies drag along, tired and unfocused when nutrition is at bay.  If hunger is ignored or put off, it can cause havoc in a child’s ability to regulate their eating patterns.  Unsatisfied hunger can build, causing overeating and inappropriate food choices. 

For the child who struggles with their weight, overzealous techniques to reduce weight, such as restricting foods and portions, dieting, skipping meals or snacks, or beginning a vigorous exercise plan can backfire, leaving a child hungry and unsatisfied and eventually causing them to overeat.  In the process of weight management, there is a delicate balancing act:  quenching hunger with filling, nutritious foods.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

Respect the role of hunger in the growing child.  Growing children are hungry– eating is variable to accomodate the energy needs associated with growth and development.  Restricting or controlling your child’s food intake may actually cause them to become over-hungry and overeat at other times.

Stay ahead of hunger. Strategically plan meals and snacks to occur every 3-4 hours.  Skipping meals or snacks can be a trap for overeating later on.

Use filling, nutritious foods.  100% whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provide fiber–a component of food that keeps you full longer;  sensible amounts of low fat dairy products and lean meats, eggs, nuts, and beans pump up the protein and also give you a sense of fullness.

Load up early.  A nutritious breakfast starts the body’s “engine” and sets the pattern for eating at regular intervals.  Kids who skip breakfast may find themselves hungrier after school and at dinner time.

Power up the protein & fiber in meals and snacks.  Include a variety of foods from at least 3-4 of the MyPyramid food groups at mealtime.  Offer “power snacks” at snack time and include a source of protein and whole grains for a satisfying, “stick to your ribs”,  hunger-defying snack.

A “starving” child WILL eat…it’s up to you to have a strategic, healthy plan in place.  Respect the power of hunger in your child.  Anticipate it.  React when it occurs with healthy, nourishing, satisfying food options that your child can enjoy…WHY WEIGHT?

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Feeding children is one of the greatest responsibilities a parent has…and the most repetetive, challenging, and sometimes mundane chore.  As our society’s obsession to be fit and trim is increasingly imposed upon our children, we, as parents, are faced with confusing and conflicting messages about proper feeding, healthful foods, and optimal levels of nutrition.  How do parents respond to this evolving and unattainable standard of perfect nutrition?   Often times, with restrictive feeding.  With good intention, of course–to give our kids just the right foods, in the right amounts, so that they get every nutrient they could possibly need, in the right amounts, so that they are just the right size and shape.  Sound familiar? 

What is restrictive feeding?  In a nutshell, controlling every little bite that goes into your much-loved child.  Controlling portions (think pre-portioned plates), purchasing diet, low-calorie, or fat-free manufactured foods, and limiting second helpings at the dinner table–these are all signs of restrictive feeding.   This practice, on a regular basis, can lead to a backlash of overeating, often away from the watchful eye of mom and dad.  Why?  Because kids may feel deprived when they don’t have the freedom to control what and how much they eat–and they may be hungrier than you think. 

Research indicates that restrictive feeding is NOT working for our children and may be promoting an environment of overeating.  Most interestingly, not only do these studies link restrictive feeding practices to weight gain, they also link parents’ perceptions of their child’s weight to restrictive feeding behaviors, not unlike those mentioned above.  In other words, if you think your child is “big” or gaining too much weight, you are more likely to control every little bite they eat.  And like adults, kids want what they can’t or don’t have–it’s human nature–but unlike adults, kids have less control over their biological drive to eat.  This situation can be a set-up for “overeating on the sly”, ultimately derailing a child’s sense of honesty with themselves and their parents,  eroding their self-esteem, and potentially promoting a culture of disordered eating.

Choosing WHAT we feed our children will always be important to their ultimate health.  WHAT we feed really matters. 

But, perhaps we need to begin paying more attention to HOW we feed our young’uns.  Remember, providing an abundant table of healthy food is both satisfying to the eye and to the tummy.  Feeling hungry and being able to satisfy that hunger is more than a full belly–it’s emotional fullness too.  And maybe feeling emotionally and physically full is what it takes to stop a backlash of overeating in our children.

Which leads to my next post…WHAT you feed matters!

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