Read an Excerpt
In the late 1990s I began working on a book I would never write called The Power of Food in the Family. In it, I intended to make the case that food can be a means to strengthen families. Mary Pipher writes in her book Reviving Ophelia about how our young people move in a world of strangers, no longer nurtured by a cohesive community, and as a result they feel isolated and vulnerable. She is not alone in her observation or concern. As a nutritionist I certainly have heard parallel worries from clients who complain about harried schedules that squeeze family time almost into nonexistence. They tell me they are stressed and worry that their children are unhappy too. I believe that the way a family buys, prepares, and serves food can help alleviate these problems.
I am not objective about the power of food and its pleasures. Food is my work, and cooking is my hobby. It's what I do when I want to celebrate, and it's one of the ways I connect with my children, husband, and friends. To a psychologist this might sound misguided, but enjoying food is not synonymous with obsession, emotional bankruptcy, or a means to elicit affection. Food used correctly can make children feel strong and confident. Returning to old-fashioned food basics such as cooking and eating together can be an effective tool to help parents raise healthy, strong, enthusiastic children in a culture that some mental health experts define as toxic because of its emphasis on commercialism and self-gratification. The problem with the book I started was that I couldn't make a good enough case for why families should take a different approach to how they handled food within the family. Everyone readily agrees that good nutrition is important and that food is the conveyor of nutrition. What does it then matter when, where, or how we eat, as long as we eat enough and not too much?
In the fall of 1998, the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. surgeon general convened a panel of obesity experts to examine and comment on the current status of obesity among our children. The results were shocking: one in five of our children is now considered overweight or obese, up fifty percent in the past twenty years, and all evidence suggests the number is climbing, not stagnant. Because I specialize in family nutrition I was asked to write this book to tell parents how to help their child lose weight. I have written five books related to children and health and I have two daughters, aged eleven and thirteen, which gives me a valuable perspective when writing about children and food. I have also been a practicing nutritionist for over twenty-five years, working with individuals, children, and families to use food to improve health.
The one good thing about the obesity crisis is it clearly identifies something has gone very wrong with our food supply, our children's health, and how we as a nation think of food and children. In the past decade as I raised my own children I have seen and had to navigate a food supply that has been altered dramatically since I was a child. Our shelves are filled with empty-calorie food that in many cases is falsely marketed to parents as being nutritious with words like lite, fat free, and contains real fruit. I am convinced, and many experts agree, that this new food environment is the reason we have a childhood obesity epidemic. The change in our food supply and family food traditions may also explain why some young people feel disconnected from their community. Parents may be surprised to learn that a YMCA parent and teen survey found the top concern among teenagers was not having enough time together with their parents. In a White House report by the Council of Economic Advisers, teens who eat dinner with their parents five times per week were less likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, or be involved in violence or early sexual activity. Kids who ate with their parents had a lower incidence of suicide attempts and better grades. For centuries human beings have gathered together to share food, whether it was around an open fire or a family table, but today we do not need to do this. The introduction of the microwave and other conveniences makes it possible to eat in isolation at any time. The changes brought about by two-parent working families make it harder to eat relaxed family meals together. In a professional journal called Family Networker Magazine, one psychotherapist describes assigning eating family meals together as homework for her clients as a way to get them reconnected.
As I read through my old notes about the power of food, this time with an eye on focusing the material on how to treat childhood obesity, I knew I had to find a way for parents to make meals and food enjoyable and pleasurable even when a child is overweight. It also became clear to me that not only the overweight child deserves the family's attention in this area, but also all siblings (old and young), and Mom and Dad too. Food is an issue not just for the overweight but for anyone who wants to live a long, healthful life.
The obesity epidemic is the white elephant in the room. This rise in obesity has occurred not because of hormones or genetic makeup but because we have created an environment for our children that is unhealthy. Parents need to protect their children from this environment because it will cause them to overeat, and they need to protect them from the advertising messages that tell them life will be better if they EAT, EAT, EAT. Do not feel hopeless if your child is overweight. Children can be successful at losing weight when they have the help and support of the family. In a study, seventy-six children were divided into three groups, all receiving similar diet and exercise advice. One group monitored only the child, another only attendance, but in the third group the parent and child worked together. It was the latter group that had the most success, which persisted even at five- and ten-year follow-ups. Children also have the advantage of being young; their eating habits are not entrenched.
In this book I will ask families to rethink what they know about losing weight and ask parents to evaluate what food means in their family. I am not recommending a diet that restricts or deprives, I am asking for the opposite. I am asking the family to provide a menu of delicious, good-tasting food, with regularity and variety. I am asking that you examine the role food plays in your family. Is it punishment? Is it a reward? How do you speak about food? I am suggesting to families that being more thoughtful about what and when you feed your child will not only help him reach a weight that is appropriate for his age and height but will also strengthen your relationship. You will make your child feel secure and confident, loved and cared for. You will use the power of food to help your child and your family be the best it can be, and you can start at your very next meal.
The goal of this book is to provide parents with tools they will need to guide their child to natural, gradual weight loss. These tools consist of knowing not only the facts about weight loss, but also what leads to success and what leads to failure. Parents need to look at their style of parenting to examine if it contributes to a child being overweight. The role of exercise is essential for a child to reach his natural weight and to help him feel good about himself. Eating a menu of real, minimally processed foods as a way to control weight and appetite will be emphasized. To make eating such a menu practical I have created the Real Food Diet. This is a system that categorizes food into Everyday, Sometime, and Occasional food choices. You and your child decide what to eat, with two important qualifications: three organized meals every day, and each family member must eat or at least taste the recommended servings from each food group on most days. Children are in charge of how much they eat, and parents are in charge of the food purchased and prepared.
My approach requires that your child and the whole family become more conscientious about what you choose to eat. Don't be surprised if you see secondary benefits from the Real Food Diet that include a strengthened relationship and a blossoming of your child's sense of self-worth. It is all possible because of the power of food.
Copyright © 2001 by Eileen Behan