Are your kids eating right?

Parents try to find the tricky balance between preventing childhood obesity and encouraging disordered eating

Published August 31, 2009 2:32PM (EDT)

Last night for dinner, I tried a recipe for a goat cheese and zucchini pizza, laced with lemon and basil. I took one bite and instantly decided it would enter my regular repertoire, only to look over and see my husband scowling and picking zucchini off it. "You like zucchini!" I accused, panicked at the thought of only being able to make the recipe again when he was out of town (which is already the case with about 30 percent of my favorites). "You like everything in this!"

Not for the first time, it hit me that I sounded exactly like my mother. But it was the first time I sounded exactly like my mother yelling at one of her kids, while talking to another adult. I must have heard "You like everything in this!" a hundred times while I was growing up, yet somehow, it never convinced me that I liked what was on my plate. And it wasn't long before the arguments over what I did or did not like became loaded with moralizing and fear of fat: If I rejected a "good" food or asked for seconds of a "bad" one -- not to mention if I happened to be hungry outside of designated meal times -- well, I was just begging for weight gain and diabetes, so I'd better learn to make different choices! What I actually learned was that my own appetite had nothing to do with eating.

Those memories came back while I was reading Frank Bruni's New York Times article about parents struggling to nourish their kids properly without encouraging disordered eating, body image issues or gluttony. Where is the line between reasonable self-regulation and neurosis? The question itself, it seems, can inspire the latter. After talking to several parents, Bruni writes, "I was struck by just how much thought they had given to coaxing their children toward sensible eating and away from extreme indulgence or self-denial. They clearly saw that as a parental responsibility akin to giving a child a first-rate education." Unfortunately, none of them could agree on how best to do that, and neither can nutrition experts.

Even more unfortunately, the few things the experts do agree on can be extremely difficult for many parents to achieve. A busy lifestyle, a lack of funds, or a finicky kid, let alone all three, can easily torpedo the best advice, such as: "Whether parents allow junk food or not, they should make sure healthier alternatives are even more available -- and should promote them. They should also make time for family dinners, the nutritional content of which they can monitor more carefully than they can a quick meal in an economical restaurant." That all sounds good, except for how humans still do not have the ability to "make time," no matter how often we're instructed to do so -- the time is there or it isn't, much like the money. And "promoting healthier alternatives" seems unobjectionable at first glance, but you can't take that very far without getting into the kind of power struggle that teaches a child her own appetites are meaningless, and different foods have different moral, not just nutritional, values -- something they'll be learning from peers and the media regardless of what you do at home anyway. Bruni tells the story of a father who advised his teenage daughter not to eat ice cream after returning from a three-mile run, suggesting that something more nutritious would be a better complement to the exercise. The daughter took this as her dad calling her fat, "abandoned the ice cream, stomped out of the kitchen and didn't speak to him for a good long while." Oops.

Bruni has even more bad news for parents worried about their children's weight as well as whether they eat their veggies: "Conflicting information about the fiercest culprits in child weight gain abounds ... There are hundreds of studies and thousands of opinions, and Tom Baranowski, a professor of pediatric nutrition at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says they'e inconclusive." Following the advice of one "expert" means contradicting another, and who knows which one will turn out to be right in the end? 

One thing that might just be a "fierce culprit" in both weight gain and disordered eating, though, is freaking out about your kid's size. A 2007 study of adolescents' weight and eating habits found, in the words of lead author Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, "The data are striking -- talking about weight, worrying too much about diet, focusing on it increases risk not only of eating disorders, but also of being overweight." It's not just a matter of finding a balance between inadvertantly encouraging excessive self-denial and being so hands-off you "let" your kid get fat -- by making food too much of an issue, you can do both at the same time.

What the hell is a parent to do, then? Well, Neumark-Sztainer advises what many experts do -- "modeling and positive encouragement of healthy behavior like making better food choices and exercising" -- but also throws in one suggestion you rarely see a scientist mention: "Unconditional love, regardless of weight." I'm neither a parent nor an expert in nutrition, but I think if you can get that one down, you're probably doing right by your kid. 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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