A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

“Do Less” Parenting

The paradoxical perils of over-thinking what your child eats

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the way of developing a more sustainable and saner approach to weight and body issues is, paradoxically, our belief in our own power. We believe that if we truly put our minds to something, we can accomplish it — a laudable, defining human quality. It’s this belief that has created civilizations of astonishing complexity and this belief that propels us forward into an ever-expanding future. But this faith in the power of human will can also lead us astray. There are many situations where we believe that greater effort will accomplish the goals we desire, when in fact this very effort itself creates new obstacles and problems. This faith in willpower also makes us less capable of taking the long view: Patience chafes against our desire to do.

When it comes to issues like eating disorders and obesity, as well as in parenting, we are constantly told that it’s us — the eaters, the dieters, the parents — who need to try harder, do better, change our methods, and on and on. But there’s a very real and even negative influence of this mindset on parenting as well as on the way parents feed their children. Sometimes I think we actually need to do less: Think less about food, talk less about weight and generally be less anxious and controlling about what our children eat and don’t eat. I am well aware this advice cuts against the grain of our instinctively activist sensibilities, but I see almost daily demonstrations of how parents may be leading their children astray by overemphasizing healthy eating. And this emphasis also leads us into the trap of missing the forest for the trees.

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Without a doubt, there is an epidemic of eating disorders in the developed world today, whether you focus on obesity and its attendant health effects, or on the ever-increasing incidence of disordered eating amongst children and young people. And it’s politicians are taking up the fight so fast it’s already become a cliché, though the anti-obesity battle is by far the greater populist draw, for obvious reasons. The health care and other related costs of severe eating disorders are surely enormous as well, even if no politician is (yet) willing to stand up and represent the millions who suffer from these illnesses. Truth be told, Michelle Obama’s daughters are far more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than they are to become obese, but no one is willing to say that out loud.

What people are wiling to do, again and again, is to blame individuals for their weight or eating problems. Obese people are greedy and simply to need eat less and exercise more. Anorexics are just skinny girls who want to siphon attention away from normal people. Bulimics are confused, insecure people who don’t know whether they want to be full or empty. And when the government steps in to try and address the larger forces at work — invisible, often sinister forces that are run by those with a profit to make from these problems — they are mocked. When Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, announces a proposed ban on super-sized soft drinks — a major source of empty calories that lead to diabetes and other diseases — he’s accused once again of trying to implement a nanny state. Yet can’t anyone see that simply relying on people’s willpower isn’t getting us anywhere? And that’s because we are being influenced from every side to do the opposite; it’s because for decades food companies have been inserting ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup into 99 percent of our food; it’s because fast food companies have been allowed to market their horrible food to children. People were against seatbelt laws for exactly the same reasons, yet now they seem sensible to most.

So while I may sound contradictory — should parents sit back and let their kids eat whatever they want, or should they try to exercise influence by encouraging healthy eating? — what I really wish is that instead of haranguing their own children to avoid all sugar/dairy/gluten or whatever the perceived poisonous ingredient may be, parents would instead use some portion of their energy to focus on what our society is doing about food, how our government can act, and how our community as a whole can change the tide. Take reasonable steps in your own home and with your own children, absolutely, but with this caveat: it is absolutely possible to go too far. And instead of making our children fearful or confused about food, perhaps instead we can help work on the larger food issues that will ultimately benefit our society as a whole — including our individual children.

 What I cooked this week and last:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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