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Fighting childhood obesity: Before you pinch an inch, remember a child is watching

June 10, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Parents who make statements about being fat or otherwise placing themselves in roles as victims may let children think they should do the same thing.
Photo illustration

It's a mantra repeated throughout most people's childhood: Clean your plate.

After all, how can you possibly waste food, you are told, when children are starving in Africa?

It's a bit of gentle coaxing used by well-meaning parents who want to insure that their children are getting the right nutrition.

But sometimes such comments can have unintended consequences.

For instance, a recent study by Cornell University found that preschoolers whose parents regularly made them eat everything on their dinner plate later asked for bigger portions of sweet cereal at snack time. In other words, they lost the ability to control their own portion sizes.

Another study by the National Institutes of Health showed that most children eat what they get used to, not how hungry they are.

Simple parental comments, the study said, can make your children victims of portion distortion and can lead to obesity.

Recently, Tracy LeBarron, a licensed clinical counselor who practices in Hagerstown, addressed some of the most common food-related statements directed at children and why they send the wrong message.

LeBarron has worked as a child and family therapist and has dealt with problems such as eating disorders.

1. You're such a good eater.

This tells the child that eating is always a good thing, said LeBarron. "Or you are good because you are eating well or a lot. I am happy with you because you are eating."

2. You're such a picky eater.

"You're saying that it is bad to be picky. We should be picky as far as what is good for us. There are better ways to expose children to healthier food choices," she said.

3. Clean your plate. There are starving children in (fill in the blank).

"Being told to eat even when we are not hungry is a very bad message," LeBarron said. "Then we are not encouraged to listen to ourselves and our hunger as a measure to keep eating or to stop."

4. Eat all of your dinner or you don't get dessert.

"Again, you're saying that eating more than you want is OK," she said. "True, healthy foods should be eaten first, like fruits and vegetables. But we must be sure to not encourage overeating for the sweet reward."

5. I was so bad at lunch today. Now Mommy (or Daddy)  has to spend an extra hour on the treadmill.

"The label of 'bad' can let a child believe eating is bad, wrong or shameful," LeBarron said.  "Explaining calories and overeating and the consequences is a better approach."

6. I'm so fat. I can't believe I let myself go.

"Making statements that place us in the victim role or put us down may let children think they should do this as well," LeBarron said. "It's saying that heavy is always a bad thing."

LeBarron said there are several reasons why children are obese, and sending the wrong message about food is one of them.

As a child, she said, "I was told to at least finish my meat. Little did I know that was the worst part of the meal for me."

And at a market recently, LeBarron said she watched parents give their child a jumbo hot dog.

"When the child bought a small cup of fresh fruit, Dad told her to finish her ‘meal' before she could eat the fruit for her dessert," she said.

"We give our children wrong messages all the time about what to eat, how much, and what our bodies should look like. This creates many eating disorders, including overeating and obesity," LeBarron said.

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