As I said in the introduction to “Healthy Grown-Ups, Healthy Kids,” obesity doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it happens in the context of families. Whether it’s the family we grew up in, the family we created or both, our eating patterns and food preferences, our exercise habits and body image are formed inside our family unit.
But the messages we give our children, both with our actions and our words, often convey a very mixed-up attitude about food.
I can appreciate why this photo is funny as much as the next person, but what’s less funny is the look on that little girl’s face when she’s a plump little 9-year-old who still wants to eat lots of cake, but instead of the laughter of all the adults around her, now hears things like, “you really shouldn’t eat that, it’ll make you fat.” And, “you’re not going to eat that, are you?”
When children are very young parents are the gatekeepers to everything in their world, including all the food in it. We choose to let things pass through the gate or not, but we’re also teaching them our attitude about food.
Let’s take this cake, for example.
If this happens in your house, think about this:
Do you bring it home frequently or on very rare occasions?
Did you buy it because it was on the day-old bakery sale rack?
Is it just for those in your household who aren’t dieting?
Do you eat it, but then bemoan your lack of self-control, proclaiming yourself “bad”?
Do you make a joke out of how “bad” it is to eat it, but eat it anyway?
Don’t think for a second that kids don’t pick up on all the subtle cues that we’re sending when we behave in the ways described above.
Here’s what they hear:
Mom/dad bought (or made) cake! Cake is good! Cake is special!
It’s okay to eat cake because we got it on sale. It’s bad to “waste money” on expensive food, but getting it on sale means it’s okay.
I’m not supposed to eat the cake that’s sitting on the counter because I’m fat. It’s for everyone else.
Boy, I sure wish I could have cake. Maybe I’ll sneak some and nobody will notice.
Mom/dad brought the cake home, but is upset because s/he ate it. Eating cake makes you upset.
Mom/dad brought the cake home, and everybody’s eating it, but they’re laughing about how bad they are because they eat it. How can eating something make you bad?
Sign up for my newsletter
Of course, there is a huge difference between the way a 3-year-old experiences this scenario and how a 13-year-old does. The 13-year-old has already internalized all of the messages and no longer questions them. Especially if that 13-year-old is overweight or obese, he or she has already made the leap from hearing that food is “bad” to believing that s/he is bad because s/he eats it. Sometimes the child views even his or her desire for the cake as personal failure.
That 13-year-old needs guidance on how to put a food like that cake into proper perspective. Of course, the cake isn’t inherently “bad” nor is anyone who eats it. But when it comes into his or her world repeatedly (and obviously I don’t just mean cake here; it’s standing in for all unhealthy foods), by those s/he loves and trusts, the messaging around healthy eating, dieting, weight, self-discipline all get confused.
That little 3-year-old is just starting her journey into our crazy, mixed-up food mindset. If not guided in a positive way toward healthy food, she may succumb to the same confusion in a decade (or sooner).
We cannot do this to them.
They deserve a better future than the crushing obesity statistics predict. If we fail, our children’s generation will be the first in history to have a life expectancy shorter than their parents’. That is unconscionable.
We must get our heads on straight about this. I’m going to be talking about childhood obesity in the bigger societal context a little bit throughout this series, but even more importantly, I’m going to be talking about what you can do about it within your own family.
Obesity has touched my family in every way and we have found our way out. You can too.
You want to a healthier life for yourself, and for your children. I get that. But understand: this is hard. It takes effort. The good news is, it gets easier. And you (and your kids) are so damn worth it!
Let’s go get it!