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Gatekeeper, Not Warden

jail-cellChildhood obesity is a societal problem, to be sure. We are all impacted by the repercussions of generations of young people who are conditioned to overeat for a variety of reasons: they are less active than older generations, they are more technologically connected but less connected to other people than older generations, unhealthy food surrounds them in the “food carnival” culture we live in.

Given all of that, perhaps we should be surprised that only one-third of American children are overweight or obese, though that is triple the number in 1963, according to the American Heart Association.

While the statistics are alarming and the overall societal problem seems overwhelming, what do you do if your child is overweight or obese? How can you help him or her?

As I said in “Healthy Grown-Ups, Healthy Kidsweight problems don’t happen in a vacuum; they happen in the context of families. Our eating patterns, food preferences, exercise habits and body image all are formed within our families. That is to say, even though all of those big societal conditions certainly exist, as parents we have tremendous influence over our family’s food culture.

The most basic premise of the healthy eating strategy I live by is that “unhealthy food does not cross my threshold.” In my house that applies to everyone in the house and every kind of food, so no special “kid foods” like chicken nuggets or Go-gurts. We create a “safe haven” in our home where the only food decisions that can be made are good ones.

But let’s be clear: there is an important difference between providing a healthy food environment for your family and being a dictator who judges everything the kids put in their mouths. The difference lies not just in whether or not you allow Cap’n Crunch cereal (standing in for all unhealthy food here) into your home, but your attitude about your family’s food choices and how you convey that attitude to your children.

In “Our Crazy, Mixed-Up Attitude About Food” I talked about the messaging we convey to kids when talking about food and our bodies. The dialogue we use – and even nonverbal communication (think heavy sigh when looking at yourself in the mirror, or pinching your arm fat and shaking your head) – tells our children how we really feel about food and our physical appearance. Every encounter is an opportunity to show them that we value our bodies by putting good fuel in it, exercising regularly and having respect for all types of bodies, not just the air-brushed ones on the covers of magazines.

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So whether we’re talking about the food we buy at the grocery store, the restaurants we choose to patronize, or the way we talk about our own bodies and other people’s physical appearance, we are the gatekeeper of our children’s experiences.

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Why not use the influence we have to create an environment that is healthy and supportive?

The best approach is to do your best to educate and inspire your children, lead by example, communicate positive and consistent messages about healthy living, and offer ample opportunities to eat healthy and exercise together as a family.

What you don’t do is bring unhealthy food into your home, then hover over them wagging your finger at them telling them they “shouldn’t eat that.” Good grief.

Creating a hostile food environment full of conflicting messages doesn’t prevent children from overeating; it teaches them that the adults in their life cannot be trusted in this regard. It drives their food choices underground. It instills fear, guilt and shame. It is devastating on every level. Much more about all of that in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, if you have an overweight or obese child, start thinking about the food you bring into your home and the attitudes you convey to your family.

You are gatekeeper, not warden.

Losing weight is hard. Nobody understands that better than a former fat kid. But it gets easier when you recognize the power you have to create a home environment that is supportive and encouraging. And you (and your kids!) are so damn worth it!

Let’s go get it!

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