If you have young children in your life, you know how difficult it can be to get them to eat healthy. Since most adults struggle with the same issues, it’s easy to see how children can develop bad eating habits, too. And with the staggering statistics experts continue to release about how obese Americans are – at every age – it’s clear that the ways we feed ourselves are not working.
Eating right is a difficult thing to define. What’s right for you today may not be right for you tomorrow. You may have a craving for a large juicy steak for dinner and then for the next three days choose to become a temporary vegan.
If we were in tune with our own bodies, we would know instinctively what to eat and how much. But, and it’s a big one, most of us have lost the ability to read the signs. We are out of touch with our true appetite, not knowing when we are actually hungry or want to eat for another reason, maybe an emotional one, or to just feel better. Also, we hear so much about what we shouldn’t eat, those proverbial Forbidden Foods, that we can become even more confused. When we lay this all down on our children, good things don’t happen.
Ann Meyers, a pediatric nutritionist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, sees the results of the out-of -control eating habits some children have developed. Parents bring their children to the nutrition clinic in hopes of helping them get healthy and to find some relief from the feeling that it’s all their fault.
Ann says that when a child -- even a teenager -- is struggling with weight problems, it’s a family issue and has to be dealt with through a systemic approach. Grandparents, unless they live with the children, don’t usually have much of an opportunity to make the changes necessary to help the child.
One problem faced by children who are overweight is that they may be spending too much time alone after school doing sedentary things like watching TV, “Instant Messaging” with their friends or playing video games.
For some children it may not be safe for them to go outside and play in their neighborhood. Other children may be involved in extracurricular activities but have to spend many of their after school hours being driven from place to place.
Ann suggests to families that they make changes to their lifestyle so children will have a better chance at being healthy. In order to make this work she advises parents to establish a rule in the home that all family members have to accept the new, healthier guidelines, but has found that this can be difficult to accomplish.
“You do have to give lots of encouragement (and accept failures as lessons) in order to change family habits and values,” Ann says. Preventing family members from feeling deprived by offering healthy, tasteful choices will go a long way to making the new eating plan successful.
Her suggestions include:
1. Cleaning out the pantry.
Remove unhealthy items that are often purchased as the result of children watching advertisements for food on TV. Replace the items with healthier choices. To decide which is which, the nutritionists tell children to use the “stoplight” approach. For “green” foods (vegetables and water), they can go ahead and eat as many as they want. “Yellow” foods demand caution. Healthy snacks such as protein, fruits and dairy products are included here. ”Red” foods, which include high caloric snacks (potato chips, candy bars, ice cream); ones with low nutritional value and even peanut butter, should not be banned from the child’s diet, but instead should be eaten only occasionally.
2. Increasing physical activity.
Ann says children should find one physical activity they like to do and do it daily. Let it be their choice but some suggestions include dance, aerobics, walking, bike riding and skiing. Parents are encouraged to sign children up for after school programs that include activities they like and get them moving.
3. Re-evaluating family free time.
Instead of going out to dinner, Ann tells parents to save the money and spend it on a family activity like skiing, bowling, ice skating or bike riding.
The child’s family has to be “extremely committed to working hard” on this issue if it is to be successful. Ann says. “It draws heavily on parenting skills and requires day-to-day constant reinforcement.”
She recommends the following books for families:
- FitKids by Doctors Mary L. Gavin, Steven A. Dowshen and Neil Izenberg. A practical guide to raising active and healthy children – from birth to teens.
- Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family by Ellyn Satter.
By Teresa K. Flatley