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Are You Raising a Future Obese Adult?
It's a question that most parents don't normally like to ask of themselves, yet extensive research clearly indicates that early eating habits are one of the leading causes of adult obesity. Moreover, these early eating habits are learned at home in the early formative years. 
If you have an overweight child now, then you already know this is a problem that should be addressed immediately. But what about the seemingly normal child? The child who appears to be thin or of normal weight?  Is there a problem of development in this child? There may be! I know many times we look at our children's trim little bodies and think, “This child has nothing to worry about, she is thin as a rail.” Most children are naturally thin. There are a variety of reasons for children being thin and if you think about it for a moment the reasons are easy to understand. 
Children generally eat smaller portions of food than adults or teenagers. Children are highly active. Their running, jumping and playing is seemingly endless. Some are even slightly hyperactive. Another important factor not to be overlooked is that children's bodies are growing. All this activity burns a tremendous amount of energy. Generally, normal children burn off most of the calories they have consumed in the course of a day. 

Believe it or not, most overweight adults were thin children. What happened? We got a little older. We stopped running and playing 10 hours a day. We went through puberty and our bodies changed. We finished school and got a desk job 8 hours a day. We got married and starting going home every evening to watch TV. It's not very hard to figure out why we gain weight as we age. Our bodies changed but the eating patterns we learned at the family table didn't change! 

I urge you to stop for a few moments and give these thoughts some consideration. We only do things for one of two reasons. To seek pleasure or to avoid pain. This simple fact lies at the foundation of all behavior and is the basic tool used in training programs. The classic example was an experiment by a scientist named Pavlov, who began ringing a bell each time he fed his dogs. Soon, he was able to ring the bell and the dogs would immediately start salivating and going to their food dishes, even when no food was presented. The association between eating and ringing a bell had become so strong, that the dogs reacted to ringing of the bell by getting hungry. 

An infant's emotional responses are somewhat limited. If we become unhappy for any reason
we express this unhappiness by crying. 

The bewildered parent or caregiver checks to make sure that a diaper doesn't need changing, and that a safety pin is not sticking the baby, or that some other physical unpleasantness is not causing the wailing. Finding no obvious cause, what almost always comes next? The child is offered food! It is quite possible that the baby was unhappy because it was bored. It woke up in its crib and the little egocentric being that it is, it was upset that no one was there to tend to it.  So it expressed its disappointment in the only way it knew how…crying.  It only takes a few times, even for an infant to learn that the next time this happens, Mom picks he or she up and sticks something in his or her mouth. Infants quickly learn to pair the association between food and mother's love. Both of which are pretty darn good. 

A little later on in life, when we came home from school, disappointed because of something that had happened academically or socially, Mom was there to offer us soothing words of comfort and divert our attention by giving us some cookies and cold milk. 

Many of us had a parent who believed everyone had to be a member of the clean plate club. Sometimes we were punished either physically or verbally for not eating all of our supper, even if we were already full. 

The reasons parents do this vary from, “Mom, spent all day in the kitchen cooking, so you had better show your appreciation by eating it all," to “people are starving in China,” to “it is a sin to waste food” and many more too numerous to list here. 

The point is that the child is being taught to overeat even when the child is full or not hungry in the first place. 

These messages from the dinner table create a dilemma for a child. On one hand, food is being associated with pleasure, such as Mother's loving attention. On the other hand overeating is associated with avoiding pain, such as not being allowed to go out and play after dinner if we don't clean our plates first. By being allowed privileges the child is actually being rewarded for overeating. 

Sometimes we teach our children, even unintentionally, that the child is not the best judge of their own hunger. They have eaten a good meal and feel full, yet some times parents tell their children, they're not finished until the plate is empty. So, the child learns not to trust their own body. After all, here are the loving parents, the very people the child trusts for care and love, telling the child they are not finished yet. So the child, anxious to please, eats more! And learns to overeat. Later in life that habit of overeating works against them. 

Such messages come from the rest of society, too…not just at the family dinner table. Holiday celebrations are always centered around food! Thanksgiving dinner, the Fourth of July picnic, or the chocolate bunny and easter eggs at Easter. As children grow to be teens, they gather with friends at the drive-in restaurant, or go on dates to the fanciest restaurants they can afford. In today's society, food is associated with weddings and baby showers, sports events and even movies. When they get married, they have a rehearsal dinner, and reception featuring a big cake and other foods. When parents or grandparents retire we honor them at a company dinner. Many people bring food to funerals and wakes. 

Food is an integral part of our existence and has taken on many symbolic roles in our society. It should be obvious by now that our eating behavior is a very complicated and complex issue. The question is, are you making food a symbolic issue to your children? 

Have you ever told your child, “You must clean your plate” or “eat all your vegetables” before they can go out and play or watch their favorite TV program? Do you ever tell a child that it is “time” to eat, just because the clock on the wall says it is noon or 6 pm? Have you done this even if the child is not hungry? Do you offer rewards for eating when the child doesn't want to eat? 

These messages teach children to ignore what their bodies are telling them and just listen to what the adults are saying. It teaches them that they are not the best judge of when or how much to eat. It also teaches a child that pleasing Mom and Dad are more important than their general health. 

What about proper nutrition you ask? There is no question that a child needs good nutritional guidance. But remember nutrition is based on what we eat, not necessarily when or how much. Well-balanced meals are very important, and serving well-balanced meals teaches a child what to eat when they grow older. 

It is important to note this article is not trying to tell you what foods to put on a child's plate. That is another subject for another day. Most parents know what foods are nutritious and what foods are not as good for their children. 

Something that is very common in the practice of weight control, is how people have been taught to eat by the clock. This practice starts in childhood, but you would be amazed at how zealously people will stick to those learned pattern when they become adults. Noon is lunchtime! The body may not even be hungry, but over the years we have been taught that at noon it's time to eat lunch! Sometimes we learn this bad habit of clock watching so well, that we don't even get hungry until we notice the time. The clock triggers our hunger. So we eat. 

Now it's 6pm and Mom or Dad has made a great dinner, so it must be time to eat. But what if our children are not hungry? What's a parent to do? 

A parent must decide which is more important, the cook's ego or a child's health and long term well being. If a person is fed at 6 pm every day for 16 to 18 years while growing up, those eating patterns will be imprinted almost indelibly on a child's mind, just like Pavlov's dogs, who learned to be hungry at the ringing of a bell. What do you think that child will do at 6 pm everyday for the rest of their life, even after they are adults? Sure, they will eat or at least get hungry at that same time. Many times the adult doesn't even realize it's happening! They just arrange their life to be at a table full of food at 6 pm daily. 

Here's a little food for thought, so to speak. Not long ago a study was done on 3rd and 4th grade children. In their school cafeteria two separate lines of food were set up. The first line offered good nutritional choices, such as vegetables, meats and grains. The second line of food had nothing but sweets, cookies, cakes, pie etc. The children were allowed to pick and choose anything they wanted in any amount without interference or guidance by teachers, staff or parents. Of course the children went straight for the “goody line” first, and continued to do so for several days. But within a very few days, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Almost to a child, the kids suddenly turned to the line with the nutritious foods. 

After several days of eating almost exclusively good nutritional choices, the children then worked out a fairly well-balanced lunch, all by themselves…one which was rich in good food, with a small sweet treat for dessert. 

What does that study tell us? First, children are often the best guide of what their bodies need, both in nutrition and especially in quantity. A child may not know much about the fat content of a given food, but they know what they “want” and often with adolescents what they “want” is generally based on what their bodies are asking for. Children will often pick a sweet, but given a good tasting healthy choice, they will equally pick the apple or carrot too. 

So, there is a birthday coming up, and your child wants to have a cake. No big deal. It doesn't even have to be whole-wheat flour with fat-free icing. It can be a normal birthday cake. Just be sure the cake is not the center of attention! Let the birthday child be the center of attention instead. 

When the party's over, give the rest of the cake away, or freeze it for a small treat next month. Do not try to eat it up so it doesn't go stale. If your child has eaten a portion of a well-balanced supper, but there is still food on their plate, then don't force the issue. Being a member of the clean plate club only teaches the child they cannot trust their own bodies to tell them when they have eaten enough. 

We now know this is very bad learned habit which can last a lifetime, and later cause the future adult much grief. A child is often the best judge of their own body.  A parent should be cognizant of that fact and help the child decide for themselves what they are hungry for, and when they are full. Doing this will give your child a far better chance to grow up a slim trim healthy adult - go for it!