We all want to serve healthy food for kids and for them to love their bodies. But we’re also given plenty of reasons to worry about our kids’ body weight, size and shape, especially if they fall on the higher end of the growth chart. Here’s the scoop on why diets are never the answer—and what you should do instead.
Healthy Food for Kids
As parents, we get so much pressure to be doing things perfectly with our kids—from what they eat to which activities they do and what they’re naturally interested in. And while we all want to raise kids who love eating healthy foods (and just the “right” amount of it!), there’s a lot of research that shows how too much pressuring, controlling, and even coercing can backfire in the big picture of raising healthy kids.
Meet Anna Lutz, RD of Sunnyside Nutrition
This week we talked to Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, of Sunny Side Up Nutrition in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anna is a pediatric dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and family feeding with a weight inclusive perspective. She’s such a wealth of information (and reassurance) on how to parent our kids when food issues are concerned—and how to notice when you might be attempting to parent a child’s weight. Her wise words:
It is not my job to control my child’s weight. I don’t need to parent perfectly for my child to have a certain weight.
My job is to model what it looks like to take care of my body and to set up a structure so children take care of the body they have. We focus on behaviors, not weight.
Do kids ever need to diet?
According to Anna: “I don’t think there’s a situation where dieting is helpful. Diets don’t work. People can restrict intake for a limited amount of time, but our bodies are meant to survive and weight comes back on and often times there’s a lot of collateral damage.” And here’s more from Anna about what can happen to kids who are put on diet or have their food restricted.
- “They can become more obsessed about food.”
- “Their hunger and fullness cues become off.”
- “We set them up for a lifetime of weight cycling, which can be harmful.”
What about the “obesity epidemic”?
“It does look like kids may be growing faster, and there could be lots of things that affect that including food,” Anna says. “But the children we have, it is not their fault if children are growing quicker. The way we’re treating the ‘obesity epidemic’ is putting the onis on these young children which is actually causing eating problems.”
Plus, she goes on to say that the fear that our culture has about weight right now sets the parent up to feel that they need to control what a child is eating—which can be damaging longterm.
What do we do about the prevalence of treat foods?
“Take a deep breath and decide what’s within our control. And what is going to be the outcome if we were to intervene,” Anna recommends. Is it going to be more harmful to say you can’t have what every other child is eating or to let them enjoy the social situation and the food? Consider instead which foods you bring into your house and when (and how) they’re served.
Anna says that this can be “A process of letting kids learn to navigate these situations and learn to trust themselves around food.” And suggests that there might be some things on a structural level that we can influence without the kids ever knowing about it, such as talking to a soccer league about changing the expectations around snacks, for example.
Getting Over Our Own Fat Phobia
Parents may be fixated on weight loss as a way to protect their kids from bullying, but the problem is actually our culture making everyone fear large bodies. ” There’s nothing wrong with parents wanting to protect their children, but there’s nothing ethical that I can prescribe or recommend for a parent to change their child’s body,” Anna says.
- “What in this home can we do to support this body that we have?”
- “How can I model body acceptance?
- “How can I talk about about what it means for everyone to have different bodies?”
And with older kids who may realize that they have larger bodies than some of their friends, it can help to acknowledge their concerns, but try to avoid them feeling at fault by asking them questions about the way they’re feeling to keep the lines of communication open.
Kids Diet Plan
The best “diet plan” you can offer your children is to serve them a range of healthy foods at set meal and snack times, and allow them to eat what of it they want. You can read more about this approach called the Division of Responsibility here. It’s such a great way to have happier meals and reduce power struggles at the table.
Plus: Links from the Show
Virginia’s story for NYTimes Parenting about the new Weight Watchers app for kids.
The snack drawer from Ashley of Veggies and Virtues.
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