Dear Dr. Debbie,
I recently spent time with a family member who obsesses over her weight and dieting.
Now she is watching her grandchildren, four girls ages 6 months to 10 years, and I worry her weight and fad diet obsession will make them have negative body images about themselves. Weight has been an issue in their family in the past, but where do you draw the line between encouraging healthy eating habits and negative self-image?
Happy With My Size
Don’t miss last week’s column Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences — Good Parenting
A fad diet is usually not founded in good nutrition. The body may tolerate it for a few days, with a few pounds shed, but physical weakness, lightheadedness, or feelings of being deprived send the dieter right back to the poor diet he or she was on before.
The best attitude to have toward choices of food is a healthy one. Unfortunately many people, including some health professionals, are unaware of basic nutrition guidelines, or choose to ignore the science because, well, vitamins are invisible and sugar, salt, and fat taste good.
This can lead to overeating junk food which can result in an overweight body. Compounding this health issue, popular culture stresses thinness, which isn’t everyone’s natural shape. So now we have a mental health issue of dissatisfaction with one’s body size. This sets up a dangerous cycle of poor food choices, an overweight body, self-pitying, and combinations of unhealthy food restrictions and running back to junk food for comfort. This is not a good model for children.
Depending on your relationship, you might offer your relative some heartfelt guidance or lead by example spending more time with Grandma and the children in her kitchen or your own. Impress her with the responsibility of feeding the children’s bodies well, and also their minds. If she’s unhappy with her body, and as you say, weight issues run in the family, suggest that the children will have a long term benefit from healthier foods and attitudes.
Eating should be regarded as essential to life as breathing. While the quality of the air we breathe is usually out of our control Grandma has all the control over what’s in her fridge and pantry. If there are only great options for children to choose from, they can focus on enjoying each other’s company at the table. “We’re here to refuel our bodies and reconnect with one other.” Grandma shouldn’t be whining in the children’s presence about “Oh, I shouldn’t eat this; it’ll just make me fatter!” Involving children in the shopping and cooking can add to a positive experience around the table. With your help, one or two of the children can go to the grocery store at a time.
You can’t go wrong with vegetables. Raw or steamed veggies hold the most nutrition. Frozen veggies have more nutrition than canned veggies. The children in my family have enjoyed frozen peas, still frozen, for a couple generations. A little olive oil or other unsaturated fat can be added to carrots, potatoes, Brussel sprouts, etc. for cooking.
Fresh (or frozen) fruit is also a great choice, but just remember this is a source of sugar so don’t overdo it. Whole grains – brown rice, rolled oats, whole wheat, whole grain corn chips or pop corn – are necessary to help the body process food. Too much carbohydrate, however, turns to fat, so just as with fruit, there needs to be a healthy limit on even whole grain carbohydrates. Add a few protein sources (fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, dried beans, nuts, seeds, dairy products) and plenty of water, and there’s your essential diet.
Try to stick to buying simple foods (i.e. “ingredients: flounder”). Most “processed” foods are full of extra ingredients that may add flavor and shelf life, but take away from the nutrition. Better to add a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt, and a sprinkle of herbs yourself.
Food Habits are Hard to Change
If the above leaves Grandma wondering, “So what are we supposed to eat?” you might want to enroll in a cooking class together or poke around the internet. Here are some of my suggestions for self-serve snacks for children. You could offer to cook lunch or dinner with them twice a week, trying out at least one new dish each time. Make a point of noticing which veggies and proteins the children like and suggest they be kept on hand. The goal is to replace poor habits – unhealthy food choices that make Grandma upset with herself – with better ones. For example, switch the white flour breads, pasta, and crackers to those made with whole grains. Sugary breakfast bars can be exchanged for a whole grain homemade version with jam as the sweetener.
Water can replace less healthy options for drinking. Add ice, a straw, a cup or washable bottle with each person’s name on it, and maybe a squirt of lime for Grandma and the ten-year-old.
The Role of Exercise
You didn’t mention if Grandma and the children are involved in any regular exercise, but this is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Adults should model and encourage making time for: walking, swimming, dancing, playing sports, yard work, etc. Exercise is essential for children’s optimal growth and health. Help Grandma set and enforce a screen time limit and put outdoor play and other active activities in her days with the children. Not only will muscles take shape, but the feel good endorphins that exercise produces in the brain can give Grandma the motivation she needs to keep it up.
The Role of Genetics
Scientists have enough evidence to link being overweight to genetics in some individuals. Indeed this family may be dealing with DNA that helped their ancestors store food as fat in the body to get through times of scarcity. If she is endowed with this survival trait, Grandma and possibly one or more of the children, could be facing a losing battle when it comes to having a slender body. A large person, nonetheless, can still benefit overall from good nutrition and exercise. Harvard Medical School suggests that:
“Genes contribute to obesity in many ways, by affecting appetite, satiety (the sense of fullness), metabolism, food cravings, body-fat distribution, and the tendency to use eating as a way to cope with stress.”
If this is the case, Grandma may need some help to see her worth other than from a number on the scale. And since the children may also be genetically inclined toward plus size, the sooner the better.
Dr. Debbie Wood is offering a series of parenting seminars, July 11, 17,18, and 19, 6:30-8:30 pm at Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis. Register at www.theccm.org or call 410-990-1993.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.