Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

Healthy Mind, Healthy Eating

Infants are naturally good eaters. They fuss when they're hungry, eat heartily until they feel satisfied, and then they stop eating. Why, then, are food issues and eating disorders on the rise? Why don't the natural eating habits of the infant last? What goes wrong?

The answer is that many things can go wrong. However, as parents, we have an integral part in helping our children develop healthy ideas about eating that can compliment their natural instincts and deter dangerous eating habits later on.

Let's look at the influences that shift our children away from healthy eating. The first is the media. ANAB (Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Association) says the media "promises women with low weights and svelte shapes will be happier, more sophisticated, better at their careers ... obesity is considered intolerable. Chubby children are seen by their peers and others to be lazy, less intelligent, dishonest and sloppy." Parents as well as children are influenced by this widespread message, and parents often obsess about their children's eating habits and weight because of the media's "promise."

Negative parental influence begins simply enough, and is often carried out with the highest of motives. Parents want their children to eat well-balanced meals and to be an appropriate weight. The tactics parents use, however, are misguided and often have the opposite of the desired effect.

Take "Nancy" for example, whose son "Joshua" was on the thin side. Nancy's pediatrician advised that he be given more calories, and Nancy began to plead "one more bite, just one more bite for me" and to engage in bitter power struggles over food at every meal. As a result, Josh refused to eat at all for many meals, and his weight dropped dangerously low.

Or look at "Harvey" who took his pediatrician's advice that his daughter was a "few pounds overweight". When she said she was hungry, he'd give her carrot sticks, ignoring her pleas for pasta or bread. He eliminated dessert and fed her small portions at each meal, even when she said she was still hungry. Much to her father's surprise, she began to gain even more weight and one day he discovered the reason why: she'd been sneaking food into her bedroom and eating without him knowing.

The tactics these parents used serve to disconnect the natural feelings of hunger and fullness that their children instinctively experience and to lay the foundation for eating issues. As you begin to assess whether you are disconnecting your child from her internal feedback system, ask yourself these questions, taken from "Let Them Eat Cake" by Ronald E. Kleinman, MD and Michael S. Jellinek, MD. Do you:

* Have a preoccupation with your child's diet? Do you argue with your child about his food or snacks or discuss his food choices in an attempt to pressure him into eating certain foods over other foods?

* Have a preoccupation with your own diet or exercise regimen?

* Play food games or engage in bribing your child with food? Do you withhold dessert until other foods are eaten?

* Have rigid rules with regard to food such as "you can only have one `treat' a day / week"?

These warning signs mean that your child could end up as one of the statistics. According to the Harvard Eating Disorders Center, in children ages 8 * 10, approximately half of the girls and one third of the boys were dissatisfied with their size. Forty percent of fourth graders report that they are dieting, or have dieted, and according to ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.) "one in every one hundred young women between the ages of 10 and 20 are starving themselves, sometimes to death." These statistics do not include the "vast numbers of people who have ... eating disorders (that) ... are not normal, but they are not disturbed enough to qualify for a formal diagnosis."

So ... what's the answer? How can you give your child a healthy outlook on eating, and help him or her develop a positive body image? One solution lies in "tuning your child back in" to their own body's signals. According to Jane R. Hirschmann, CSW and Lela Zaphiropoulos, CSW (as described in their book "Preventing Childhood Eating Problems") we do this by asking our children the following:

* Are you hungry?

* What are you hungry for?

* Are you full?

Let's see how this sounds:

Child: I'm starving!!!!!!!!

Mother: Are you hungry? (Now, this sounds ridiculous, but the truth is that children eat for a variety of reasons, and only one of them is hunger; they may eat because it smells good, or it's ready, or they're bored. By asking this question, the emphasis becomes the feeling of hunger. Over time children learn to pause and self-evaluate what their body is telling them.)

Child: Yes!

Mother: What are you hungry for?

Child: Ice cream. (Now any child in his reasonable mind is initially going to answer with something you might have prohibited before. You have two choices here. You can either say "fine" or you can say "sounds like you're hungry for something sweet. You can have ice cream later. Here are your choices for something sweet that you could have now: an apple, an orange or some grapes. Which of those are you hungry for?")

The question "are you full" is often stated by the child herself * she may push her plate away at the table and state "I'm full." Trust this. Refrain from saying ""just take one more bite (of your vegetables) and then you can leave the table."

If you have a child who eats a lot, then when your child asks for more say, "Are you hungry? Or are you full? Why don't you think about it for a minute and if you're still hungry you can have some more."

The topic of eating and healthy food habits is critical in our media saturated society. This article presents only a small portion of the thinking on this topic. For more information, I encourage you to read more fully the sources listed above. In addition, another excellent book on the subject is Ellyn Satter's "How To Get Your Kid To Eat, But Not Too Much."