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
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
An infant's emotional responses are somewhat
limited. If we become unhappy for any reason
we express this unhappiness by crying.
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.
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.
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.
point is that the child is being taught to overeat even when the child
is full or not hungry in the first place.
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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!