Preventing Obesity Without Promoting Eating Disorders: What’s A Parent To Do?
This week, my fellow blogger Heather Morgan Shott asked a really good question, partly in response to my recent post about severely obese youth: should we only feed our children healthy food? And I would add: if so, do we run the risk of promoting eating disorders? Stay with me here as I walk through the issues.
The obesity epidemic in this country (it’s estimated that 1 in 3 adults will have diabetes in the year 2050) clearly suggests that many children (and adults) are not eating properly. From a research and clinical perspective, there are of course many factors at play – genetics, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, socioeconomic contributions — but without question unhealthy eating is rampant in our society (both in terms of what we eat, and how much we eat). So it should not be a controversial statement to say that, as a population, we need to eat healthier.
One way to achieve this is to just eat healthy foods. From a health and nutrition viewpoint, this would clearly be a good thing to do. But there are two issues to consider.
First, many of us seem to like less healthy foods as well (I do). And as babies turn into toddlers, and toddlers turn into children, they are going to be exposed to a variety of foods that we as parents can’t control. It could be at a birthday party, at a friend’s house, or as they turn into teens, out at the mall with their friends. One consistent finding from research is that overt restriction by parents often backfires — kids can crave what they can’t have and go nuts for it once they get it. Which leads to the second issue: the roots of eating disorders are often planted in childhood. Again, strategies like banning and restricting can, in some cases, create food issues which lead over time to the onset of maladaptive eating behaviors.
So it’s not easy to figure out how to get it right for kids. I don’t have specific answers, and I trust parents to wade through these issues themselves and come up with their own algorithms of what’s healthy, what’s tolerable, and what’s not acceptable for their own kids. But I think the key is for parents to be educated about kids’ food choices, so that they can give their kids tools to make good decisions and develop healthy habits. So, this means knowing how many calories are in a fast food meal, or how much sugar and fat is in a dessert, so that if you permit your child to indulge, they can regulate portion sizes and understand why these foods are to be consumed only occasionally. And if you don’t want your child to eat certain types of food, you can convey why that is and what they might turn to as healthier alternatives (rather than just banning them).
But all that said, there is no substitute for a core diet of delicious and healthy foods — which is why I enjoy following Heather Morgan Shott’s blog for recipes!