I recently got word that my proposal for the 2015 Kids Health Conference for Voices of Ohio’s Children was accepted. My session, Growing Healthy Kids: Looking Beyond Weight as a Measure of Health, will share research about supporting kids’ health without relying on anti-obesity rhetoric. I will share the recent research about what we know about kids, weight, and health along with ways families can support kids in both their physical and mental health.
This is a hard sell for a lot of people who believe that obesity is the enemy and that kids need to be protected from that enemy at all costs. The problem is that the “obesity epidemic” is a lot more complicated and recent research shows that our well-intentioned efforts may be doing more harm than good.
Some of you may have read the article I wrote about this a few years back (you can find it here: Weighing Down Our Children) and I’ll be sharing some of that info but updated and with more information about things we can do to help our kids be healthy without demonizing differently sized bodies.
The conference is May 6th and 7th and my session is on the second day. The conference will take place at The Westin Columbus and there are CEUs available for social workers (but not counselors — frustrating! maybe that’ll change).
You can register by going here.
I may offer the same workshop in my office at some point so let me know if you might be interested. (You can contact me here.)
These are things I didn’t know about food or cooking until I was an adult:
- I didn’t know that you didn’t need a box of Jell-O instant pudding to make pudding.
- I didn’t know you could make pancakes without Bisquick.
- I didn’t know the difference between butter and margarine.
- I didn’t know that American Cheese slices were not actually cheese.
- I didn’t know the difference between Non-Dairy Creamer and cream. (Seriously — I must not have read that “Non-Dairy” part too closely.)
- I also didn’t know the difference between whipped cream and Cool Whip.
- I didn’t know that you could make salad dressing without an envelope of pre-mixed spices.
- I didn’t know there was any kind of lettuce besides iceberg.
- I was eleven before I found out you could make cocoa without Swiss Miss (my mom shocked me by making it right on the stove with a wooden spoon and a tin of Hershey’s cocoa).
- I was thirteen before I knew you could cook a hot dog by boiling it instead of putting it in the microwave.
- I was fourteen before I knew you could make mashed potatoes out of potatoes instead of out of a box. (We loved the lumps and embarrassed our stepmother by going on and on about them.)
- I was fifteen before I knew you could make a grilled cheese sandwich from actual cheddar cheese. (And my boyfriend impressed me even more by making it on homemade bread and even added sprouts.)
Sometimes I think about this as a very clear metaphor for the baggage we haul around from our family of origin. Some of it is good stuff, some of it is bad stuff and some of it is just plain wrong stuff. Fortunately you can start to correct the bad stuff just by being out in the world and being open to noticing new things.
I’ll admit that I was a 23 years old before I learned the difference between whipped cream and Cool Whip. Doubly embarrassing since I’d spent a couple of years working the retail counter at Katzinger’s, where knowing about food was part of the job description. But we never used whipped cream there that I can remember so when my co-worker asked me to go grab some for the strawberry shortcake she was bringing to our lunch potluck I headed to the frozen food aisle. Meeting up at the check out line she gasped at my blunder and marched me back to the dairy aisle to grab a spray can. (Later I learned to make whipped cream myself with an ice cold mixing bowl. Miracle of miracles!)
As time went on, I learned to pick and choose from the things I learned from my family and the things I learned as I went along. I only made homemade pudding once — the results were good but not worth my boredom stirring over the stove. But I never use margarine. My kids like their grilled cheese made with “Grandma Cheese,” so-called because I kept our ‘fridge stocked with actual cheddar until they discovered those creamy individual slices at my mom’s house and insisted on putting them on the shopping list. We don’t have a microwave and I never make mashed potatoes out of a box but I do use Bisquick to make these particular chocolate chip cookies my kids love and my husband likes to mix Hazelnut Non-Dairy Creamer with his half-and-half in his morning coffee.
We pick and choose. We learn things, we discard things, we pick new things up and we keep some old things close.
Do you remember this post? It was going around about a month ago. The mom found a note written by her 7-year old daughter listing all of the ways her daughter was going to lose weight. The mom was understandably upset and she was also flabbergasted because, “Our attitudes are reasonable and balanced. Weight has never been an issue in our home – it is, for the most part, irrelevant.” Later the mom finds out that her daughter learned about dieting from another little girl.
I’m glad the writer shared this story with us because it’s a reminder that our kids talk to other kids. And even if weight seems irrelevant in our homes, it is relevant out there in the rest of the world so we need to talk about it — explicitly and often. You want to be the boss of this conversation, right? Certainly you don’t want the media to dictate how your child feels about herself. And you don’t want other kids in charge of whether or not your daughter feels pretty. That’s why you have to talk about it.
Help your kids be critical
Point out the lack of body diversity in the media and explain why we see only one kind of body on TV. Make a point of celebrating all kinds of bodies, definitely. But you also need to talk about how not everyone thinks all kinds of bodies are just right. Explain that this is a prejudice that your family doesn’t participate in. (And you don’t, right? You don’t talk about your weight or your friends’ weight or how fat your favorite actor has gotten, do you? Because that’s gotta stop.)
Talk before their friends do
Head off the diet talk your child will inevitably hear from friends by talking about it right now. Tell them that sooner or later someone they love will call themselves fat or compare their size to someone else. Sooner or later someone will tell your child that she is too fat or too skinny; it’s inevitable. I tell kids that children — especially in the tween/teen ages when they’re trying to figure out what the heck is going on with their bodies — do a lot of comparing and they talk about these comparisons. They say, “Why do your thighs touch? Why do you have an outie instead of an innie? Gosh, your arms are so bony!” It’s going to happen but you can limit some of the harm by talking about it now. That way when another little kid on the soccer team says, “You’re eating fries?!? Don’t you care about getting fat?” your child will have an answer ready. I know this is hard for a lot of parents because they hope if they don’t bring it up their child won’t have to deal with it. Trust me, they’re dealing with it. This is the soup we’re all swimming in and as Don Draper says, “If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.” I know the guy’s a louse but he has a point here.
Diet really is a four letter word
Diets are bad for kids and other living things. Food deprivation — not eating when we’re hungry, not eating until we’re full — screws up our metabolisms and there are a slew of studies that show they are especially bad for children. Calorie restriction (says the research) actually makes children fatter. Really. And it also messes with their natural ability to read their bodies’ satiety signals.
Eat more ice cream
This is why you have to eat regular old “junk” food now and then. Now I’m not telling you to hit the golden arches every time you have your child buckled into the car seat but you do need to teach them how to be competent eaters. That means not avoiding a whole class of delicious food because it doesn’t meet high nutritional standards. Denying is tatamount to dieting and remember we need to avoid that. Our children need to see us eating food for fun and for celebration and because it’s delicious. They need to see us model enjoying our food and not feeling guilty about it. They need to see us push our plates away when we’re full and dive in full of enthusiasm when we’re hungry. We need to learn to be competent eaters, too.
Don’t demonize food
I know this is hard, especially when we’re having such intense discussions about organic and go local and factory farming. These are important discussions to have but when our kids are young they need to figure out how to listen to their bodies first and foremost. I worry when I hear about parents showing their young children Fast Food Nation or Forks Over Knives. These documentaries can get in the way of a child’s natural ability to understand appetite. You can live out your values in ways that help our kids instead of harm them. By all means, go to your local farmer’s market and get everything you need to make a big, beautiful salad but don’t beat yourself up (and definitely don’t do it in front of your child) if you end up at the local Big Box supermarket picking up non-organic lettuce some weekend. Likewise you can help your child talk about how he feels after he eats a box of sour gummy worms without shaming him. Kids are going to eat too much sometimes. Eating is opportunity to learn, which means sometimes eating too much or too little or not what our bodies want. Making mistakes is part of the process.
A long time ago I read an article by one of the editors at Utne (before it was sold) writing about eating. He used to be a vegetarian and he was also a world traveler and he was writing about times when he was visiting someone and they would offer him lunch or dinner or tea and he would refuse because he didn’t eat meat. He wrote that at some point he realized that he was rejecting hospitality in the name of his vegetarianism and so he decided to continue as a vegetarian except when he was offered food and then he would be a vegetarian who ate meat in the name of hospitality.
That was his decision. It doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for everyone. But it made me think about the way that food and our rituals we have around food are about so much more than feeding our bodies.
This video made me think about that again.
EAT from Rick Mereki on Vimeo.
(They have two more videos: Learn and Move so check those out, too)