Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Raising Kids Who Eat Right

Raising slim kids in a fat world

Most adults struggle with their own weight.  As a nation, we're bombarded with completely contradictory messages:

  • Be thin and beautiful!
  • Eat! Enjoy! Indulge!
  • Obesity is genetic!
  • Diet!

Even the Food Network is full of contradictions.  Televisions shows focusing on delicious food, carefully prepared, interrupted by commercial after commerical for unhealthy convenience foods.

And then there's our kids.  

The Bad News: Many of our kids are overweight, and they're born that way

A new study was released by the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday on childhood obesity. We're no longer surprised by the finding that our kids are obese: we've been bombarded with that message for years now. Still, the findings are worth repeating:

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  • By kindergarten 12 percent of kids were as heavy as the top 5 percent of kids were when the Centers for Disease Control standards were developed in the 1990s.  
  • An additional 15 percent were classifed as overweight (between the 15th and 5th percentile.  
  • Although the BMI cannot be used to accurately judge the weight of individuals, it is perfectly adequate for judging populations. Our kids are getting heavier and they are exercising less than we did. And we exercise less than our parents and grandparents.
  • Despite its limitations, BMI is a decent indicator of whether your child's baby fat is more or less than their peers. You can calculate their BMI using age, sex, height, and weight here.  Make sure you use the child charts and not the adult ones! They are very different.

The worst news from the new study?  

  • If you're born heavy, you're much more likely to be obese by kindergarten.
  • Half the obese kindergarteners were obese in 8th grade. Three-fourths of the very obese kindergartners were still obese in eighth grade.
  • Obese kindergartners were four to five times more likely to be obese in middle school than their peers.
  • Obesity in middle school predicts obesity into adulthood.

The Good News: Lots of kids are slim, and you can help your child develop healthy habits

Genes help determine how fat we are. I know. I come from a family of overweight diabetics. But behavior does a lot more. As a population, our genes have not changed since the 1950s. But as a population, we've become a lot fatter. We know that obesity is a contributing factor in most major health issues in adulthood. Thus just as we try to help our children develop good work habits, to succeed in school and to be polite happy people with good social skills, we should also help them to develop good eating habits that will serve them well in adulthood.

Some things you can do:

Put tasty, nutritious food on the table

Home-cooked food has fewer additives and is less expensive to serve. Kids learn to enjoy foods that they eat. Take advantage of that:

  • Serve foods that vary in taste, color, and texture. We eat with more than our taste—it's the look and the smell and the touch that makes food enticing or disgusting. Take advantage of that by putting out food that pleases.
  • Proportions matter. The Harvard and government food plates differ in detail, but both look a lot different than the typical McDonald's happy meal.
  • You are looking for a plate that is three-fourths full of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. One-fourth of your plate should be healthy protein—lower fat, including eggs and nuts as well as meat.

Put nibbles on the table. Kids love finger foods. In addition to the main plates you put out, put out a little plate to nibble from. Nuts, a cut up apple, or carrots can give kids (and you!) something to munch on with crunch or sweetness to compliment the main dishes.

Yes, eat AT THE TABLE.  

  • Kids eat better when they eat with adults. It slows them down. It gives you all time to talk. You can help them learn table manners.
  • Adding regular structure to the day reduces childhood stress—it's something they can count on. People eat better and they eat less when they aren't stressed.
  • If they eat with you, you can teach by example. Provide a good one.  
  • When children eat in front a screen—the tv, game console, or computer—they eat mindlessly. They put more food in their mouth and they enjoy it less.  

Skip the clean plate club.

Kids eat a lot, but they have small stomachs. Like us, they need to learn to stop eating when they're full. LET THEM!  

  • A recent study found that 85 percent of parents told their 5-year-olds to eat more after the child said they were full. This continues into adolescence. Don't do that!
  • Let them fill their own plates. Serve family style. Ask your kids to put some of everything on their plate and give it a try, but just a dot is fine. They can refill their plates with more of what they want. And you may find that this differs from night to night. They don't like it tonight, but you do? Put it out again a few days from now. They may warm up to it. Many kids take three or four presentations of a new food before they really like it.  
  • Kids who fill their own plates eat less and choose better. Most parents of young children fill their plates for them. Don't do it!  Even young children can learn to serve themselves—and young preschoolers can direct you to fill their plates with what they want. That's what placemats (or trays!) are for. When we make choices, we take responsibility. Kids too.
  • They don't finish their food?  PUT IT IN THE REFRIGERATOR!  When they were younger - and still now as teens—my kids would often get partway through their dinners and decide they were full. They'd tuck their plates into the 'fridge for later. After homework they often found themselves hungry again. They'd take their plates out and finish them up before taking other snacks or dessert.

Make sure kids get enough rest

Children who sleep well, eat well. And this isn't just a correlation between personality differences or regular family life with good eating patterns. An intervention study found that when children went to bed earlier, they eat fewer calories. Thus in addition to improving behavior, school performance, and happiness, sleep also helps kids make better food choices. Although these differences were small, they add up over time.  

Bottom line: Start young. Small changes make a difference.  

No one can change our genes. But small changes make a big difference for weight. And weight makes a big difference for health. Small investments you, as a parent, can make in your child's healthy future:

  • Serve good, healthy food
  • Let them eat as much—or as little—of that healthy food as they want
  • Eat with them, but not in front of a screen
  • Get them to bed on time

And don't forget that a little dessert goes a long way. Everything we eat doesn't have to be healthy - as long as most of it is.

Past posts on weight loss:

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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