Q&A: Healthy Eating, Self Esteem, & Body Image
My son is 8 and slightly overweight. I am wondering what’s the best way to address it. I have even caught him sneaking food. He is a carb lover (like me) and could eat the equivalent of 3 servings of cereal and a bagel for breakfast. How do I help him to make healthy choices without having it backfire and make the problem worse (like sneaking food)? He has become sensitive about his weight, and I believe he has had kids comment about it at school. I would appreciate any advice or insight you have on this issue.
Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)
The first step to changing the way your child eats is to create a home where the healthy foods are convenient, prepared, and abundant while the unhealthy foods are inconvenient, difficult to prepare, and scarce. Imagine a kitchen where there are several healthy choices prepared and ready to eat. But if you want cookies then you have to bake them. If your home has an abundance of unhealthy, convenient snacks around, any efforts you’re making to get your children to eat healthy will be an uphill battle.
Have healthy snacks and foods ready-to-eat and easily available (think cut fruit, veggies and a healthy dip, sliced chicken breast and ketchup, or protein bars). You could offer to make him a healthy snack but…require he make his own unhealthy one. Quite often we eat unhealthy snacks because they’re easy to open up and much on. Think about having a refrigerator/pantry that has lots of healthy options on hand. (Lately, I’ve had 0% fat Greek yogurt with fresh blueberries and a little honey on hand for my daughter who’s home from college. It’s like creamy ice cream.) Initially, your child might not want these things but have them around and eliminate the unhealthy stuff and eventually he’ll try them.
The second step to getting your children to eat healthy foods is to set up firm boundaries and structured choices without any judgment about their decisions.
Let your children know that 95% of the time you’ll be preparing only healthy meals. If they want the more unhealthy choices they’ll need to prepare them themselves. Offer them some choices of the healthy foods you’re willing to prepare.
You can make a rule that before he has a snack of his choice he first must finish a healthy snack of your choice. You could give him a choice of a piece of fruit, veggies, a sandwich, nonfat yogurt or whatever. By the time he finishes the healthy snack he won’t be able to eat so much of the unhealthy one. Additionally, he’ll be developing a taste for healthier food.
Ask him to help choose from healthy choices. Give him multiple choices from healthy foods you choose.
Offer your children structured choices in order to avoid power struggles: “If you want _______ then you need to have ________ first. If you want to have_______ first/only that’s fine but that would be with your money.” Or, “You can choose any one of these five (cereals, protein bars, etc.). You can choose one or I’ll chose.”
Eating is often driven by emotion, not hunger. The forces that drive overeating and binge eating are often emotional, not logical. Start by focusing on quality rather than quantity foods. You help your child develop a healthy relationship with food when you praise them when they eat food that’s good for them. The first step is to help them find healthy foods they like and encourage them to eat these without worrying about quantity. In the beginning stages of changing food habits they will still be overeating to feel good so just try to encourage them to eat healthy/healthier foods when they do.
Keep discussions, and setting of boundaries and limits, about food as neutral as possible. Example, “It’s fine if you want a sweet treat in the afternoon but from now on you need to eat a healthy snack before any unhealthy snack. If you don’t want a healthy snack that’s okay but if you don’t have a healthy snack first you can’t have the sweet/unhealthy snack.” Or, “I realize you want me to buy those cookies but I’ve decided to limit the number of unhealthy sweets we have in the house. If it’s really important that you have them you’re welcome to use your allowance to get them for yourself.”
Try not to convince, berate, or lecture about food. Discussions that bring up shame or guilt about food can lead to binge eating and eating in secret.
Have a conversation about his feelings/concerns about food and his weight/appearance. This conversation should be primarily you asking your child questions that help him to decide whether his current choices are getting him the resultshe wants. Let him tell you his concerns, goals, and struggles about eating. And then ask him to give you input about which healthy foods you buy. You choose what’s healthy and he chooses which of those foods he likes.
Avoid the emotional backfire of shame and guilt that accompanies sneaking food. If you catch him sneaking food, set a consequence in a neutral manner. Example, “Since you decided to go against my rule of having a healthy snack before a sweet one, it just means you had your dessert early tonight. Maybe you needed to have it now, and that’s fine, it just means you can’t have it later.” Or, “If you sneak food and don’t stick to the rules then the next time I go shopping I won’t get that item.”
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, behavior specialists, teachers and administrators in the methods he’s developed. During the last twenty years he’s been a teacher for 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions was published in September 2010 and is available at Amazon.com.
Answer by Julie Gamberg and Holly Kretschmar (Parents & Educators)
We’re happy that you’re engaged in your son’s health and self image and recognize his weight as a potentially sensitive issue. Though you asked specifically about your son’s weight, you’ll see below that we’ve taken the opportunity to step back and address the challenge of health more broadly, which we hope will be helpful for whatever stage your son is in.
The good news is that being ‘slightly overweight’, particularly for an 8 year old, is not a health risk in and of itself, and carbohydrates are not inherently problematic (more on that below). Sneaking food, however, and feeling sensitive about weight, are issues that could worsen over time and negatively affect other areas of your son’s life. We have some thoughts about how to help your son build a positive relationship with food (and strengthen his self image) as well as some dietary and fitness suggestions to make sure your whole family is on track. But before we make tactical suggestions, let’s remember that people come in all shapes and sizes, and connecting with your son about feeling ‘chubby’ (if that’s what he feels) is an opportunity to encourage him to embrace his uniqueness and appreciate the diversity of people around him.
Pre-tweens are hard at work forming their identities, exercising their opinions, and forging their first attempts at big decisions on their own. They’re impressionable, and as a parent, it’s important to be careful about the language you use because you can have a profound impact on your son’s self image. Though his body is changing rapidly and may look very different in a few years, labels such as “fat” or “overweight” can stay with him for his whole life, contributing to low self esteem. So, when you talk with your son, avoid talking about weight or dieting and instead focus on nutrition and movement.
Carbohydrates have been vilified by popular diets, but in fact carbohydrates are necessary sources of energy that help process other nutrients. However, some carbs are more nutritious than others. Complex carbohydrates, such as legumes (a protein/carb combination), whole grains, and vegetables, are efficient forms of energy, and fuel growing bodies with necessary calories. Your son does need a variety of nutrients to stay healthy, but as long as he consumes some protein, fruit, and vegetables during a week’s period, he’ll likely get the basic nutrition he needs. (Consult your pediatrician if you’re concerned that he’s not getting necessary nutrients.) Many kids go through stages where they eat one thing, such as only white food or only hot dogs for weeks at a time, and it’s theorized that these urges come from genuine physical needs (for carbs, protein, or perhaps micro-nutrients). We don’t know the particular circumstances of your son’s carb-o-philia, but he could be eating carbohydrates for the emotional comfort that starchy foods provide; he may be ‘carb sensitive’ and eating simple starches may trigger a craving for more; he may be “rebelling” to real or perceived restrictions or judgment about his eating; or he may simply be hungry. In general, an eight-year-old is still making food choices by listening to his body, which is an instinct that should be nurtured. (Many adults are so burdened by social norms and their own negative associations with food that they lose the ability to respond to their body’s cues.) As a parent, you may need to accept your son’s love of carbs in the short term in order to help him establish good habits for the long term.
If your son is sneaking food, his behavior may indicate that he’s starting to eat for reasons beyond physical hunger, or perhaps he’s fearful of your reaction to foods he’s eating. Sneaking food is a warning sign that a child’s sense of self-respect is at risk. To nurture trust between you and support your son’s developing sense of honesty and integrity, think through this problem carefully: Why is he sneaking food? Is his diet overly restricted? Are there foods in the house that he’s not allowed to have (and are therefore overly tempting)? Does he see someone else in the house use food as a reward for behavior? We recommend removing ‘off-limits’ foods from the house, avoiding using food as a reward, and steering clear of too many ‘food rules’ so that your son can learn to exercise his own judgment. Eight-year-olds are learning to make decisions for themselves, still reliant on their parents but also eager to stretch their wings. Too many rules about what and when kids can eat can make off-limits foods more desirable, and they can send a message to kids that their parents don’t trust them, preventing them from learning how to make good decisions. Sometimes when food rules are relaxed kids revel in the sudden freedom and go overboard on junk. But this phase is usually short, and you can use it as an opportunity to ask your son how he feels and if he notices that his energy is less than when he eats nutritious food.
If your son is getting teased at school, he may not be engaging in physical activities with his peers. If so, you could help your son find activities he enjoys and can master. Some athletic programs are set up in such a way that kids who run slower or are less athletic may feel embarrassed, cost their team points, or feel like ‘losers’. Check out the athletic programs he’s involved in. Programs such as the successful Playworks (http://www.playworks.org/) help kids learn to love moving regardless of their athletic ability. If your son doesn’t like his current athletic program, we encourage you to to try and change it, and if that doesn’t work, experiment with different types of movement until you find one that’s a fit for him. From swimming to rollerskating to martial arts, you can help your son find an activity he enjoys.
Protecting your son from shame, guilt and other emotions that foster a negative relationship with food (and his body) requires taking the long view. As your eight-year-old grows taller he may grow leaner and lose the baby fat that he’s carrying now, or he may grow chubbier. What’s important is to model a healthy body image and a positive relationship with food, and create a relaxed but informative food environment at home. If your son sees you eating nutrient-dense foods and hears you talking about the feel-good and body-building benefits of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, he’ll adopt your healthy habits in the long run. Most importantly, help teach your son to be proud of who is he is. As many readers of this site know first hand, it can be challenging to be someone who isn’t accepted as normal in the mainstream, but it’s deeply rewarding to stand up and be yourself, whatever your shape, size, or identity. If your son is going to be a chubby teen and young adult, support him in becoming the most self-confident, grounded, chubby person he can be. At some point, you may need to explain to him that many people are afraid of difference, and that some people behave unkindly out of fear that they won’t fit in. But if he can brave the popularity storm, he will find himself richer for it and he may just turn out to be popular as well.
Below are some tactical ideas for creating a healthy food environment in any family’s home, regardless of their shape or size:
● Stock your house with healthy food and snacks. Many parents find that their kids are most receptive to cut vegetables, for example, when they’re available as a pre-dinner appetizer. Cut them in cute shapes, if you have the time (or teach your son to cut them), and present them attractively (smiley faces, animals, etc.) as a bonus. Serve them with dips (hummus, yogurt-red pepper, pesto, applesauce, etc.) and ask your son to find his favorite veggie-dip combos.
● Model healthy eating, so healthy food behavior seems normal.
● Talk to your son about energy-giving (nutritious) foods and energy-sapping (junk) foods. Encourage him to notice the difference in how he feels when he eats different foods. Most kids are fascinated by the fact that food ‘works’ inside their bodies – that beans build muscles and yogurt makes their bones strong, for example – and that some foods supply more lasting energy than others.
● Model and talk about moderation. Show your son that if he’s eaten the ‘good stuff’ first, less nutritious foods are fine in small amounts. And, even moderation in moderation is fine; a second helping of pie on Thanksgiving just might be a human right, and occasional, unabashed enjoyment of food for deliciousness’ sake can be a natural part of a sustainable diet.
● Involve your son in every part of the food process if possible – growing, buying, prepping, clean-up – so that he learns to value good quality food. Grow some herbs or, even better, vegetables. Take him shopping and let him choose his favorite vegetable, for example.
● Visit your local farmers’ market, regularly if possible, and get to know the farmers who provide your food. Some farms host family volunteer days, another way to connect your son to the source of his food.
● Engage him in cooking. Cooking with kids helps them appreciate food, and builds their skills so that someday, they can make their own meals instead of relying on fast food. Many kids get excited about specific implements, such as the peeler, the grater, the steamer, or the salad spinner.
● Make gradual changes. No kid wants to see her beloved sugar cereal and white flour bagel replaced suddenly with a quinoa flake porridge and sprouted whole grain bagel. You may want to introduce complex carbs or protein at breakfast, but make the changes slowly (mixing a healthy cereal with a less healthy one, for example). Avoid pushing specific foods, which can increase resistance; don’t treat the changes as a punishment, and back off a bit if you meet a lot of resistance.
For all of us, health is a lifelong challenge, and often, awareness is the secret to physical health. Knowledge about nutrition, fostering a love of movement, and having a positive body image are the foundation of sustainable health. Try some new things, take it slowly, and let us know how it goes.
Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.
[Photo Credit: Flickr member Alysssla]