What are we teaching kids about food, eating and weight?
I was out cycling last week around the time when children were walking to school and out of the ~20 students I passed (all under the age of 13), at least 4 were munching on crisps (potato chips for my Canadian readers) at 8:00am. Was that breakfast? Was that in addition to breakfast? Were they hungry? I have no way of knowing.
At the other end of the spectrum, I have also had conversations with super health conscious parents who try to restrict their children’s food intake for fear their child is going to become overweight — not allowing any snacks or trying to dictate how large a child’s portions should be at meal times. If you think that is going to help these children develop a healthy relationship with food…trust me…it isn’t. I can’t begin to tell you how much damage it does to restrict a child’s food and how much it will backfire later on with these kids eating as much as they can when they have the chance (even if they have to resort to hiding food to do it). I also have to say, I’m not a fan of the Public Health England campaign telling parents to limit a child’s snacks to 100 calories. If you are an active, 15 year old boy, 100 calories just isn’t going to cut it. If you aren’t physically hungry (regardless of age), then eating that would be 100 calories too much. We need to stop letting outsiders dictate how much we eat. As a dietitian who has been working with people for more than 23 years, I…quite frankly…don’t have the foggiest idea how much you should be eating. Sure, I could figure out your estimated calorie requirements if I needed to, but I rarely ever need to do this (and even then, it is usually just for clients who are tube fed). If you are experiencing physical hunger (eg growling tummy or some other physical clue that your body is asking for food), then you need to eat. If you are not physically hungry, then you don’t.
I wish I could make this concept more complicated because then I’m sure I’d have a much bigger following. Instead of just eating when we are physically hungry, people insist on tracking every mouthful they eat in an app, attending weekly meets to discuss what they should and shouldn’t eat and/or adopt intermittent fasting (where you are only allowed to eat between certain hours of the day or you only restrict calories on certain days of the week). Is this how you want your kids to eat? Because they are watching you.
Hunger is a physical bodily sensation remarkably similar to needing a wee (pee for my Canadian readers). The clues start out quietly and while you can ignore them for a short time, the signals eventually get stronger and stronger until you can’t ignore them any more. The signals can even get so strong that you can’t pay attention to anything else that’s going on, other than how to get that need met. When you take care of what your body needs, the signals quiet down again and you can focus on other things in your life. So can you imagine, if someone came up with the bright idea to tell kids that we know what is best for them, and we are now restricting their wee breaks to 3-6 times a day at intervals of 4-8 hours? That would seems positively absurd. We don’t instill a set time each day that everyone in the family needs to use the toilet, yet we seem to think this is OK to do with eating. Why?
I would like to suggest that everyone’s time and energy would be much better spent, teaching kids how to listen to their bodies. Yes, I appreciate you don’t want every member of your household eating at a different time, and that isn’t what I’m suggesting. But think about it. There is quite a span between the first signs of needing a wee, and feeling like your bladder is going to explode. Hunger is the same. There is a huge span (usually of several hours) between the first signs of physical hunger and being so ravenous that you can’t think straight. It is possible, through the strategic use of snacks, to ensure that everyone in the family is hungry at the same time in order to share a family meal. And it is reasonable to assume that everyone will eating a different amount at that meal, depending on when they last ate.
So here is my advice to all parents. Abide by what Ellyn Satter (dietitian, social worker and guru on child feeding) has coined as the division of responsibility.
Parents are responsible for:
what food is offered (one meal for everyone, no short-order cooking);
predictable times when food will be made available (to eat…or not…based on physical hunger); and
where food is allowed to be eaten in the house (preferably not in front of a screen) or which restaurant a family goes to.
Children should not be the only ones deciding what is served at meal times. They are too young and their food decisions tend to be based solely on taste and nothing to do with nutritional value. As an adult, we have the ability to balance both of these needs.
Children, on the other hand, are responsible for:
deciding what they want to eat (from what is made available…again…no short order cooking); and
how much they eat. If they are not hungry at a meal/snack then that is fine, they can still sit with the family, but they will need to wait until the next scheduled meal/snack time before they are offered food again.
Actually…come to think of it…even adults would be well advised to abide by this information as well. When you are well rested and well nourished, put your “parent hat” on and come up with your plan for deciding what foods are going to be offered throughout the week, at what times and where. Then when mealtime comes, you can “eat like a kid,” and just decide what you are going to eat from what is available and how much. The advice, really, couldn’t be much simpler.