Prevention is Worth Pounds of Cure

intuitive eating weight childrenOn Friday, I linked to two articles that represented two important parts of a similar theme. One, “Parents should avoid comments on a child’s weight” was one of many articles in the mainstream media about the latest research demonstrating the harmful effects of commenting on children’s weight. I say latest, because this is not new news to me…there is actually quite a bit of research in this area.

I chose this article in particular to link to because, instead of just reporting on the research study, the reporter interviewed experts about what you could do if your child’s weight may be in a range that can impact their future health. In other words, fostering healthy behaviors (for everyone in the family, since parents are models for their kids) and taking the focus off of weight. This is often referred to as being “weight neutral.”

Weight neutrality is an important mindset for all of us. The reality is that even if you would like to weigh less than you do now, eating healthy and exercising in a way that brings you joy may or may not result in a change on the scale, but it will make you healthier. It will probably also make you feel better. That’s of tremendous value.

Cultivating Intuitive Eating

The other article, “My 5-year-old refused to eat the healthy dinner I cooked. Here’s why I let her,” was a wonderful representation of why it’s important (even when it feels hard) to raise children to be intuitive eaters. Babies and small children are natural intuitive eaters, turning their heads away from the breast or bottle when they’ve had enough, or eating two bites of dinner one day and cleaning their plate the next. Studies that have measured how much toddlers eat intuitively find that while calories may fluctuate widely from day-to-day, over the span of say, a week, they average out to being just right. The same would be true for you, too, if you learn to eat intuitively instead of deciding how much you “should” eat based on external measures, like a calorie count.

Someone I work with struggles with this. She is raising her young son to be an intuitive eater and “listen to his body,” but his nanny keeps trying to find ways to trick him to eat foods that he has rejected. It takes a village!

In my adult patients today, I see the ramifications of damage done long ago by parents who put them on diets when they were children or forced them to clean their plates. The damage is particularly acute when they were the “only heavy child” in their family and were treated differently in terms of comments and what foods they were allowed to eat.

My Story

In my own life, my father commented on my weight from at least early grade school onward (looking back at photos, I may have had a few extra pounds, but would likely have grown out of it if left alone). I was forced to go jogging in the heat of California summers when I was in third grade (which formed a lifelong distaste for running), then signed up for Jazzercize classes (I hated the leotards), then pushed to Weight Watchers when I was 15. This was all my father’s doing, but I had a mother who was a chronic dieter, so that had its own impact.

[Side note: I was so “successful” at losing weight as a teen on Weight Watchers, that my English teacher, a kind, lovely man, asked the school counselor to talk to me because he was afraid I might be developing an eating disorder. I was touched by his concern, but my father was deeply offended.]

On the flip side, I remember sitting at the dinner table for what felt like hours (I’m sure it wasn’t nearly that long) until I ate most of whatever it was I didn’t want to eat (usually fish…I hated fish growing up). If I held firm and didn’t eat it (I honestly felt like I would be sick if I did), I was sent to my room as punishment. Way to squash intuitive eating!

When Scars are Slow to Heal

Anyway, this latest research not only confirms what is known, but it resonates with me on both a personal and professional level. I see the ramifications of weight-related comments and forced eating in childhood with my adult relationship with food, and I see it clearly in my patients. If the parents of today take a different tack, remaining weight neutral, encouraging fun physical activity as a family, and following Ellyn Satter’s guidelines for division of responsibility (parents decide what food will be served and when it will be served, children decided how much of it to eat), there will be less need for the work I do today.

But there is a need, and that’s why I do the work I do, and am furthering it by working toward becoming a certified intuitive eating counselor (through Evelyn Tribole, the mother of modern intuitive eating, if you will). And it’s why I remain alert to adult manifestations of childhood food- and weight-related trauma in my own life, and those of my patients. Even when you know it, and see it, it’s tricky to unravel it, sadly. But there’s always hope!