Should you talk to your child about his weight?

Teaching your child how to eat right is a delicate issue. Dina Rose shares what you should and shouldn’t do

small girl frowning at food

Want to talk to your child about his or her weight? Here’s my advice: Don’t. Nothing good can come of it. And, it is likely to make things worse.

Of course, if your children want to talk to you about how they feel about their weight, [maybe they’re being teased or they’re starting to feel less energetic], go ahead. Being an emotional support system for your kids is always worthwhile.

But how does the usual conversation go? You’re very worried and they already know that. As parents you think that their health is at risk. But kids can’t relate to that—it’s too long-term for them. So you think you’ll just get them to eat healthier. But that strategy is bound to backfire too. Kids don’t care about nutrition and any attempt by you to make some foods off-limits will make those forbidden foods even more desirable.

The conversation about weight invariably ends up with some talk about portion size, but that’s a losing strategy too. There is absolutely no way for parents to know how much their children need to eat at any given time because this varies so much from day-to-day. Kids are growing. They exercise. Sometimes they are sick. But, even if it turned out that by some stroke of magic, you really could figure out how much food your kids ought to consume, you still shouldn’t interfere. Teaching your kids to trust your instincts rather than their own will prevent them from learning how to self-regulate how much they eat. So that’s the bad news.

Now for the good news: You can still shape how your kids eat. You just have to switch strategies. Rather than focussing on what or how much your kids eat, put your energy into teaching your kids to have a healthy relationship with food. Here’s how.

1. Focus on teaching your kids healthy eating habits

There are only three habits that translate nutrition into behaviour, and everyone—even the youngest kids—can implement them.

  • Proportion: Eating really healthy foods more frequently than eating moderately healthy and junky foods. This habit keeps junk in the diet but minimises its presence.
  • Variety: Eating different foods from meal-to-meal and from day-to-day. This helps kids break out of the bad-food rut by encouraging them to look for different foods.
  • Moderation: Eating only when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full and not eating because you are bored, sad or lonely. This habit helps kids to consider portion size and how hungry they are.

2. Talk to your children about how to know when they’re hungry and when they’re full

Our bodies send us cues to let us know when we’re hungry and when we’re full, but many children don’t know how to hear those cues. Talk to your children about what hunger and fullness feel like, and ask them to evaluate how they feel at different times of the day. Consider having your children evaluate their hunger on the following 7-point index:

  1. I’m so hungry I feel sick
  2. I’m starving
  3. I’m hungry
  4. I’m not sure if I’m still hungry
  5. I’m done
  6. I’m full
  7. I’m stuffed and uncomfortable.

3. Let your children eat even when you know they aren’t really hungry

In most homes, kids who say they aren’t hungry are denied food. It makes sense because it’s not a good practice to eat when you’re not hungry. But what if your children want to eat anyway? They’ll have to lie, first to you and then to themselves. And it’s the lie that makes it particularly hard for some kids to hear their hunger cues. It’s counter-intuitive, but allowing your children to eat whether or not they’re hungry gives them the security and freedom—in time—to consider how hungry they really are.

4. Talk to your children about different kinds of hunger

Have you ever eaten something because it looked good, even though you weren’t particularly hungry? In the ideal world, people would only eat because they are experiencing physiological [or tummy] hunger. But people eat for all kinds of reasons. Children don’t automatically know this. Look for a quiet time when your children are away from food and talk to them about those reasons. It will help them hear their true hunger cues more clearly. Then, give your kids some guidance on how they can cope with each of these occasions too.

  • Taste hunger: This happens when food looks good. In these situations, have a taste or a small portion. Better yet, save the food for later, when you’re hungry.
  • Practical hunger: We often eat because we have to, such as when there won’t be time for lunch later. In this case, eat enough to tide you over, but not so much that you’ll be too full.
  • Emotional hunger: People often eat to quell uncomfortable feelings. It’s better though to ask for a hug, to have a cry, or even to get some exercise.

5. Implement eating zones—regular blocks of time for meals and snacks

Eating Zones teach children not to graze throughout the day. In doing so, Eating Zones help kids become comfortable feeling hunger, while also learning that hunger isn’t a ‘problem’ they need to immediately fix. To create Eating Zones that will work with your family’s schedule, evaluate the typical day to see when it’s best to provide meals and snacks, and stick to this schedule on a regular basis. Remember, in between the Eating Zones, are No-Eating Zones.

This was first published in the June 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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