Childhood obesity is a health issue that has gained a lot of notice over the past decade, leading to a number of attempts to promote a healthier lifestyle, from the White House’s “Let’s Move” initiative to public service announcements devoted to reducing the consumption of sugary drinks.
Causes of childhood obesity are similar to obesity in adults — unhealthy dietary habits, lack of physical activity and, at times, medications. Taking in more calories than they can burn over time may cause your child to gain excess weight.
Your child may be diagnosed as overweight or obese if his weight is above the normal or healthy weight range for children with similar age and height. If you have a concern, your family doctor can easily calculate this and guide you further.
Overeating is a more complicated cause of weight gain, because it is often tied to emotional eating. When children take on this behavior, they eat for comfort, boredom, or use food as an inappropriate response to emotion. Children that eat emotionally will also eat secretly, to avoid harassment and embarrassment. Although hunger is associated with emotional eating, it comes on quick and seems urgent.
To better understand childhood obesity and emotional eating, I spoke to local dietitian and new mom, Jenna Hollenstein.
Shnieka Johnson: What signs should parents look out for?
Jenna Hollenstein: Some possible signs of a dysfunctional relationship with food among children could be sneaking food; equating certain foods with reward or punishment; parroting judgments about foods being good or bad (might have been overheard from parents, older siblings, friends, or friends’ parents); eating any foods to the point of physical illness; an over-reliance on juice or sweetened beverages, which can mess with hunger signals; experiencing shame around eating; or developing an eating disorder (including overeating).
SJ: Should a child ever go on a diet?
JH: A child who has developed a dysfunctional relationship with food should not be put on a weight-loss diet, which will only further confuse him by teaching him to ignore hunger signals, that certain foods are good while others are bad, and learning to listen to external signals of what, when, and how much to eat.
Rather, a child should be guided to reconnect with the intuition we are all born with that tells us when we are hungry, what we are hungry for, and when we’ve had enough, and also leaves some room for fun foods. More and more evidence points to the fact that diets actually lead to weight gain — and a ton of misery. Children should not be exposed to this at such delicate ages (or ever, for that matter).
If your child is truly overweight, there are ways to help him reconnect with internal signals of eating, but first, it’s important to get to the heart of why your child overeats, whether that is out of a fear of deprivation, self-soothing with food, or some other dysfunctional use of food.
SJ: How should we teach our kids about food?
JH: We teach children about food primarily by modeling what it looks like to be a normal eater, to have a positive relationship with food (and our bodies), and to eat a variety of foods, primarily driven by hunger and fullness, and sometimes also enjoying “play food.”
Many parents try to micromanage their children’s eating by forcing lighter eaters to eat more, bigger eaters to eat less, and by only allowing “nutritious” foods to enter the house. This sends the wrong signal, specifically that kids can’t trust their own appetites and preferences to drive their eating, and that foods are either good or bad.
While well-intentioned, this often leads to children feeling deprived and in turn overeating, or rebelling by asserting their autonomy at the dinner table, and an obsession with play foods like candy. By providing a variety of foods and not judging our children for their choices, we teach them self-trust that will carry them through a lifetime of healthy, normal, and satisfying eating. Parents can also teach kids about nutritious foods and play foods in a non-judgmental way.
SJ: What is “intuitive eating?”
JH: Intuitive or attuned eating styles, I’d say, means:
• Eating primarily for physical reasons (hunger, fullness, according to preferences).
• Enjoying a wide variety of foods.
• Not using food to deal with emotional issues.
• Regarding all foods on an equal moral level (no good vs. bad foods).
SJ: Does a child’s relationship with food reflect his parents’ food habits?
JH: Basically, no matter what we think we are teaching our kids about food and eating, they are like little sponges absorbing everything they see. If they observe their parents having a dysfunctional relationship with food (or of not treating their bodies with love, care, and respect), they will likely internalize those things in some way.
SJ: What can parents do to better guide their children in healthy eating?
JH: Prevent children from developing a dysfunctional relationship with food by helping them to preserve the intuition they are born with. Check out “Intuitive Eating,” third edition, which has a great chapter on “Raising an Intuitive Eater,” and Ellyn Satter’s “Child of Mine” for specific ways to do this.
If your child has already developed a dysfunctional relationship with food, don’t panic and try to force your child to eat differently. Address your own eating issues and enlist the support of a registered dietitian with experience with intuitive eating or other attuned eating approaches to help you figure out practical ways to reinstate this easeful way of being with food.
A few things to remember:
• Kids, left to their own devices, will self-regulate. Don’t worry about a single meal or even a day. Most children eat a variety of foods and quantities over the course of a week.
• Food is often the first way a child asserts his autonomy. Don’t create a power struggle.
• Expose your kids to new foods, but let them respond as they will, at their own pace. It may take up to 15 exposures for a child to accept a new food.
• Don’t talk the talk, walk the walk. Say less and model more of a healthy relationship with food and your body.
Shnieka Johnson is an education consultant and freelance writer. She is based in Manhattan where she resides with her husband and son. Contact her via her website, www.shnie