Teaching children about mindful eating

Do you have a child with a weight problem and wish you could do something to help him? Are you upset watching your child deal with this difficult problem alone and feel you have failed him as a parent? Psychotherapist Dr. Michelle Maidenberg has written just the book to assist you with this dilemma — “Free Your Child from Overeating: 53 Mind-Body Strategies for Lifelong Health.”

As of 2010, more than one-third of the children and adolescents in this country were overweight or obese. It is a serious national health issue, since overweight or obese children are 10 times more likely to become overweight or obese adults. And food manufacturers know how to lure kids to eat unhealthy food; kids are now eating five to six times more sugar than the three teaspoons a day recommended by the American Heart Association.

Mindful eating

The book, written for children 10 to 18 years old, is broken down into three parts. In the first part of the book, Maidenberg introduces the concept of “mindful eating” to kids. She explains, “One popular definition of mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

She suggests parents talk to their child about mindful eating, as opposed to mindlessly eating a bag of potato chips in front of the television. Maidenberg wants the child to experience and savor the food’s flavor, and share his thoughts and feelings with his parents. Mindfulness stops impulsive behavior, and lets parents help their child navigate his emotions.

The child is asked to write in the book about his mindful-eating experience. Then, he should assess his values in life, such as family, friendship, compassion, and integrity. Once a child establishes his core beliefs, he can begin to formulate an idea about how he is going to change his lifestyle to eat more nutritiously and exercise.

This book is not about dieting, because, “Diets don’t work,” says Maidenberg, “Ninety-five percent of dieters regain their lost weight in one to five years … Encouraging dieting can undermine parents’ intent and actually contribute to an increased risk of obesity.”

Instead, she advocates “a consistent practice of healthy eating and exercise [that] will making long-term, incremental changes. The goal for any child is to promote diet-free living and mindful eating with all foods eaten in moderation.”

Working together

The second part of the book details how the family can collaboratively work together to help the overweight child and even themselves. Most often, an overweight child usually has an overweight parent, so the author has the parents write about their behavior and attitude towards food. Even if the family has another child without a weight problem, Maidenberg advises treating both children the same in regards to mealtimes and eating.

The more frequently parents made comments to their children about their weight, the more negatively the children felt about their bodies. Family members should never tease their child about being overweight, nor should they weigh their child or bribe him to lose weight.

In addition to buying healthier foods, parents may decide not to buy “trigger foods” that cause their child to overeat. If parents do choose to bring trigger foods into the home, they should not have them easily accessible in the kitchen.

Research shows that when the family attempts weight loss and healthier lifestyles together, children are more successful at losing weight. When families eat meals together, kids tend to eat healthier and are less likely to be overweight.

Parents shouldn’t label food as “junk” or “bad” food. Sometimes the overweight child will steal or hide food to avoid being seen eating it. If there is shame associated with eating a specific food, it is more likely the child will try not to be seen eating it, and may overdo it.

Besides following a healthier eating plan, children should adopt an exercise routine. Many studies have found a direct correlation between screen time and kids being overweight and obese.

Family meals should be screen-free and family members should commit to no more than two hours of screen time per day. Studies have also shown that exercise has numerous benefits. For example, it enhances academic performance, improves mood, promotes better sleep, and increases energy.

If you never discuss your child’s weight problem, you could be seen as ignoring it, even though you may be thinking about it. And one study showed that how you talk about it matters. According to the study, if parents engage in weight-related conversations, those children were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight-control measures, and binge eat. But, when the parents discussed healthful eating behaviors, the adolescents were less likely to diet and use unhealthy weight-control behaviors.

Sticking to it

Teenagers are at the age where they want to be independent, but they actually need parental support more than ever because of their “raging hormones and impulsive behavior,” the author says. The last part of the book discusses how parents can help their child if they slip by binging. Kids can have self-defeating thoughts, and parents can talk them through these ideas, so they can resume their improved lifestyles.

Teenagers should learn that no one is perfect. And if they binge, they should try to get back on track as soon as possible.

“Every slip is a learning opportunity and enhances your child’s self-awareness and ability to problem solve. [He] is practicing working through challenging situations to get back to her values of healthful living,” Maidenberg writes. The author leaves space in the book for when a child makes a mistake, he can write down his thoughts and feelings, and how he intends to resolve the dilemma.

The family must support the child and his needs — whether it means calling a restaurant ahead of time to find out the menu or accompanying their child on a walk around the neighborhood. These teenagers should also learn to assert themselves in restaurants or other situations when they need to ask for healthier food alternatives.

Parents are encouraged to use empowering words when discussing their child’s health, such as “fit,” “strong,” and “active.” Parents should encourage their children to love their bodies regardless of their weight, as humans are all different shapes and sizes. Parents should also stand up for their child if they are being bullied at school because of their weight.

“The prevalence of weight discrimination has significantly increased in recent decades and is comparable to the rates of racial discrimination. Weight is the main reason for teasing and bullying at school,” Maidenberg writes. Children should have access to healthful foods at school and should also receive some type of nutritional education.

The most important lesson of all is for children to learn that hard work provides positive feedback.

“The person who sticks it out — who decides to stay with it despite any setbacks, frustrations, and disappointments — is left feeling confident and proud, recognizing that the result is worth all the effort!” Maidenberg concludes.

Allison Plitt is a frequent contributor to NY Parenting and lives in Queens with her 10-year-old daughter.

Dr. Michelle Maidenberg.
Matt Carr