Planning On Putting Your Child On A Diet? Think Again
By Sarah Remmer, Registered Dietitan
Photo © Lifestock/Twenty20
Dec 31, 2019
My nine-year-old son has started a personal challenge to do 10 pushups and 10 sit-ups per night, all on his own. The other night I decided to join him, and my two younger kids (six and four) joined in too. Our fun little workout session took a turn when my son sat up and grabbed his tummy with his hands and said, “If I keep doing these sit-ups, will I lose this?" My heart sank.
Quick to recover, I sat up, grabbed my stomach and said, “Uh, buddy… anyone who sits up has those rolls, look at mine! Totally normal!” This was followed by his younger siblings doing the same: “Look, mine does that too!” In no time, we were all laughing again and my oldest breathed a sigh of relief.
I will never ever put any of my kids on a weight loss diet (and will always discourage clients from it too).
My son’s body has changed. I’ve noticed it. He loves food and always has. He eats fast and always wants more. I also know that he’s still growing. His body will change as he grows. Before I know it, he’ll shoot up in height and his shape will change yet again. And I continue to celebrate his love of food.
I focus on teaching my kids to be intuitive eaters, and growing their long-term relationship with food. I do my job of feeding and try my best to let them do their job of eating. But I also understand what it’s like to be concerned about a child’s weight.
Here’s a sobering truth: Children’s diets are currently FILLED with ultra-processed foods.
Canadians are the second-largest buyers of ultra-processed foods in the world. Studies show that kids between the ages of two and nine get 51.9 per cent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.
It’s no surprise that my nutrition counselling practice is booked with worried parents needing guidance on how to “help their child lose weight." Reality is, obese children are more likely to develop a range of health problems, including:
- high blood pressure or heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- sleep apnea
- abnormal menstrual cycles
- bone and joint problems
- low self-esteem and negative body image
- being teased or bullied
But I will never ever put any of my kids on a weight loss diet (and will always discourage clients from it too). Diets for weight loss are NOT the answer, and may even make things worse. We need to do better, and here’s why.
Diets Don’t Work
Let’s cut to the chase. Weight loss diets don’t work long term. Short-term success? Sure, maybe. But nine times out of 10, it’s not sustainable. And putting a child on a diet is a sure-fire way to increase their chances of developing an eating disorder. Obviously this is not what we want. Not to mention, dieting during childhood can lead to a lifetime of chronic dieting or weight cycling.
So instead of putting your child on a diet, try these strategies instead.
Read more Sarah Remmer about kids and food: 5 Things To Do If Your Child Eats Too Fast Or Too Much
1. Heal Your Relationship With Food
This one’s tough. Do you have a healthy relationship with food? It’s a loaded question, because eating and food relationships are complicated. And this usually stems back to our childhood.
Let’s just say, if you were a kid who grew up in the Weight-Watchers-point-counting era (hello, fellow children of the '80s and '90s!), or heard “three more bites or no dessert” or “clean your plate before leaving the table," your food relationship is likely a bit warped. Not your parents’ fault — that’s all they knew! But it’s time to heal your relationship with food so that you don’t pass these thoughts and habits on to your kids. This takes time and patience. Emotional eating, eating in the absence of hunger and yo-yo dieting are realities for many of us, and they are hard habits to break.
2. Teach Your Child To Be A Mindful Or Intuitive Eater
We’re all born with a natural ability to eat intuitively. From a young age, we have the ability to listen to our own natural physical hunger cues, and follow them. But as parents, we need to teach, encourage and facilitate continued intuitive eating habits in our kids.
Intuitive eating is all about eating when you start to feel hungry and stopping when you are full. Easy, right? Well, no. Because as kids grow, external factors come into play, and often become louder than their internal cues. Examples include that “three more bites” rule, or “no dessert until you finish your veggies." But this takes away from your child’s natural ability to self-regulate. Pressuring kids to eat, labeling food as “good” or “bad," or linking food with behaviour (rewards or publishment), are also no-nos on the path to becoming a mindful or intuitive eater. Which brings me to my next point.
3. Respect Their Appetite
Just like your appetite changes from day to day, so does your child’s. Some days they may ask for seconds and some days they may only take a couple of bites. All OK. Maybe they aren’t feeling well, or maybe they had a more filling lunch. Or maybe they love their meal SO much that they just want to keep eating (which serves as an important, natural consequence for learning how to self-regulate later).
The point is, it’s up to them to decide. Forcing kids to eat when they aren’t hungry (or telling them they’ve had enough) may lead to body distrust. Do your best to trust your child and their appetite.
More tips for kids and mealtime: This Dietitian Mom Serves Dessert With Dinner (And You Should Consider It Too)
4. Have A Routine
While you need to let your child decide if and how much they eat, it’s also important to have a fairly consistent meal and snack schedule in place. Learning to self-regulate comes from knowing when to expect meal and snack times. Allowing two to three hours in between meals and snacks (depending on the age of your kid) allows them to feel hungry, but not starved at the start of an eating opportunity. Kids who are allowed to graze throughout the day are unable to figure out their natural hunger and fullness cycles.
5. Practice Body Acceptance
A study conducted in 2016 asked 501 adult women between the ages of 20-35 to recall comments their parents had made growing up about their weight or eating habits. Not surprisingly, adults whose parents made weight-related comments were more dissatisfied with their bodies.
You are so much more than your weight, or the amount or types of food you eat — and so are your kids. Kids are exposed to societal pressures the same as adults. Lunchroom conversation about food, the comparison of bodies and the desire to simply fit in are all pressures kids face each day. As a parent, you can’t completely protect your children from society’s view of weight and weight stigma, but you can control the conversation in your own household and of your own body. Because what we say about our own bodies can become our kids’ inner dialogue as well.
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