It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. It would be easy to say I’ve just been too busy, but the truth is that I always find the time for the things I’m really motivated to do. I think the real reason I haven’t blogged is that I have been struggling to figure some things out and I can’t write without first having clarity about what I am called to say.
I had a food-related epiphany in June and it has significantly changed the way I feed my family and the way I eat. For the past few years, my husband (Stuart) and I have been concerned about our younger son’s tendency to gain weight. Urged by one of his doctors (a specialist and not his pediatrician, who knew better), we embarked on a plan to help him lose about 5 pounds. The specialist thought he should lose 10 pounds, but even I knew that would not be healthy for a growing boy. What a fiasco! Even though we used all of the right approaches (i.e. being positive, making it fun, being careful about the words we used), the end result was that our son lost and re-gained 5 pounds and learned to feel bad about his “fat” body. He also started developing some eating-related habits that were not so good, such as craving “forbidden” foods and over-eating them when he had the chance to do so. We developed some bad habits, too, such as describing our son as a “picky” eater who did not like “healthy” foods (which became a self-fulfilling prophecy). Even if we tried not to verbalize this message, he certainly heard it.
About 3 months ago, Stuart and I reached a point where we felt like we needed to do something to help our son, but we were at a loss for what to do. Given that I am a professor of health promotion and I teach nutrition courses, it was a little hard to admit that I couldn’t figure out how to solve this problem. I realized, though, that the problem had little to do with the food itself and everything to do with our relationship with our son. My friend, Michelle Summerson, is a Registered Dietitian and works with children and families who struggle with being overweight. She gave me two books by Ellyn Satter, an R.D. and a family therapist. Satter recommends an approach that is different from what many other childhood obesity experts are recommending. In short, it goes like this:
We are born with an innate sense of how much we need to eat and when to stop eating. Food restriction (i.e. dieting, having “forbidden” foods) makes us fear that we will not get enough food and binge when we have the chance to eat all that we want. Dieting makes us always want more than what we are “allowed” to have; eating until we are satisfied helps us feel secure and not need to binge. We should also be able to eat food that we enjoy and not be forced to eat “healthy” food that we don’t like. She recommends scheduled, sit-down meals and snacks every three hours or so with no grazing in between. Parents decide what food is served and should make sure there is at least one food on the table that everyone likes. Children decide whether and how much of each food they want to eat. There’s more to Satter’s approach than this, but you get the main idea.
We told our son that we wanted to try a new approach and we thought he would really like it. Guess what? He did! In fact, he started doing more of the cooking himself and getting excited about planning our meals and snacks. Without us nagging him, he is trying new foods. Sometimes he makes what he considers a “healthier choice” and sometimes he chooses the fun food that tastes good, but the important thing is that he’s doing this without guilt. He particularly loves the social interaction we have over the meal or snack and is disappointed when we can’t all sit down together and talk while we eat. He is developing what Satter calls “eating competence”, or the belief in his ability to feed himself in a way that will be enjoyable and healthful. We can tell that he feels confident about his body and that the guilt he was feeling over his appetite is starting to go away. What a joy it’s been to see this change in him.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from all of this was not about my son, but about myself. I was convicted of my own unhealthy attitudes about food and eating it. I realized that I have been the “picky” eater (and not my son), always on a diet and afraid to eat too many carbohydrates and too much sugar. I frequently prepare one meal for my family and a different meal for myself. I often try to minimize or ignore my appetite and refused to eat “forbidden” foods, even though they look tasty and I want them. I worry about gaining too much weight, now that I’m not preparing for a women’s figure contest. My son was learning his food-related fear and guilt from me! I’m not beating myself up over this, but it has been good for me to see the dynamic for what it is. I’m now applying Satter’s principles to myself. It’s been hard to let the old mindset and habits go, but I’m making some slow and happy progress.