In today’s media, it seems like one of the easiest things to find is advice on how to raise normal-weight children. The Internet is rife with bullet-point lists of suggestions. Childhood Obesity News has surveyed many such lists.
How many of the helpful ideas are backed up by science? This is not yet clear. Which ones work? It depends on whom you ask. Just about all the tips for parents have one thing in common — if you try it, no harm will be done. And most of them share another characteristic. If your family tries the tip, it might not directly result in slim children, or you may not be able to perceive exactly how that could happen. But it is almost certain to have some other good outcome.
For example, this list was compiled by registered dietician and certified personal trainer Anika Christ:
Get at least 8 hours of sleep
Drink half their body weight in ounces of water — take water to school
Eat at least one meal with their family each day at the kitchen table.
Engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.
Keep screen time to two hours or less.
Eat a high quality breakfast, including protein and fiber.
Eat at least 3 vegetables per day.
Every one of those anti-childhood-obesity suggestions is a good idea that will improve a child’s life in some way. No doubt about it. If a family decides to do all those things, and follows through, nothing but good can come of it.
Another contribution to the genre is titled “A surprising answer to slimming down our kids,” written by W. Douglas Tynan, Ph.D., of Jefferson Medical College and Nemours Health & Prevention Services. The problem, as expressed by Dr. Tynan, is:
Having more information isn’t the same as making healthy behavior changes at home.
Have truer words ever been spoken? Many people have noticed this counterproductive aspect of human nature, including the children and teenagers who confide their stories to the Weigh2Rock website. Here is Dr. Pretlow’s description of the first thing he learned from creating Weigh2Rock:
It was assumed that providing information on healthy eating, portion control, and exercise, in conjunction with online peer support, would enable those using the site to attain and maintain healthy weights… Despite demonstrating knowledge of healthy eating and exercise, most youth using the site reported little or no weight loss and some even continued weight gain… In a 3-choice poll asking, ‘Do you think that information on healthy eating helps you to lose weight’, 67% of respondents (n=96) selected ‘No, I am overdosed on healthy eating information — I need info on how to resist cravings.’
Dr. Pretlow believes that the key to childhood obesity prevention is equipping a child with ways to cope with cravings. The essential nature of this need is expressed in the design of his “W8 Loss 2 Go” iPhone application.
But let’s get back to the clinical psychologist’s point of view, and see if there is common ground. Dr. Tynan has known families where parents had a huge responsibility to monitor a child’s diet because of allergies, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, and other conditions, as well as obesity.
Dr. Tynan knows what an overwhelming struggle it can be. He quotes work done in 2008 by the Endocrine Society that showed that piling on the information can produce only “minimal change,” and says:
Too often, healthcare practitioners (and the media) throw more and more information at concerned parents, confusing facts with behavior change. My experience has been that information overload doesn’t help. Often patients and their families with the most information do the worst… [W]e wind up with very knowledgeable families who do not improve and are often frustrated in their efforts to try and change their lives.
Two large, long-running studies seem to indicate that children’s risk for obesity could be reduced by 40% by doing three things in addition to better food choices and more physical exertion. We will consider these recommendations in the light of their ability to reduce cravings.
The first is, set limits on TV, including computer use. Any kind of screen — two hours per day, max. Can this reduce cravings? Yes. Because every type of media offering, not just network TV, seems to be saturated with enticements to enjoy the pleasure of food. Messages that say, “Eat, eat, eat,” just pour into those little brains all day long. Fewer images of food, fewer sales pitches, fewer cravings.
The second principle is family meals, together, and that means at least five nights per week, not one or two. Effect on cravings? Could go either way. First of all, it’s not always practical because of parents’ work schedules. Factories and mines and hospitals and police departments, and many other businesses work round the clock. There are families where one parent is absent from dinner most nights, for years at a time, and it has always been that way, and it can’t be helped. Yet many children raised in such families grow to adulthood without becoming overweight.
Even when both parents are available and willing to do family dinners, the enforced togetherness can backfire, and there is nothing new about this, either. Many people alive today have nothing but grim memories of family dinners that featured criticism or verbal battles. Since the root of food cravings is emotional, family gatherings that create more emotional damage are toxic. If this ritual is to be health-giving, the atmosphere needs to be good.
The third suggestion is to get children into bed and make sure they have enough sleep, like, for instance, 10.5 hours a night for a four-year-old. In terms of cravings and food, this one is a no-brainer. A sleeping child may dream of sugar plums, but is, at least temporarily, incapacitated to eat them.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “8 house rules for healthier kids,” LifeTime WeightLoss, 09/11/11
Source: “A surprising answer to slimming down our kids,” philly.com, 04/11/12
Source: “Addiction to Highly Pleasurable Food as a Cause of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic: A Qualitative Internet Study,” Eating Disorders, 06/21/11
Image by USDA Gov (U.S. Department of Agriculture), used under its Creative Commons license.