Are You Infecting Your Kids With Your Food Hang-Ups?

By Jean Antonello, RN, BSN, obesity and eating disorders specialist and author of The Great Big Diet Lie, How to Become Naturally Thin® by Eating More, Breaking Out of Food Jail and Naturally Thin® Kids,

Childhood obesity is growing to epidemic proportions in the United States. Maybe it’s because of the messages we’re sending to our children.

What We Believe

Our whole culture has become convinced that weight problems are simply a result of eating too much food and exercising too little. And we are getting fatter and fatter the harder we try to eat less and promote exercise more. This is unfortunately just as true for our children as it is for adults. But there is an ironic correlation between under eating (for any reason) and weight gain. I investigated this connection in an attempt to solve my own 17-year weight struggle.

I discovered some physiological reasons why under eating, eating late, going hungry, and dieting all actually promote weight gain. Throughout time, humans have had to adapt to the changes in the availability of food, and fat storage on the human body has been the method of survival through famine times. Bodies adjust to lack of food by accumulating fat when plenty of food is available.

There are five main ways that bodies accomplish this:
• metabolic rate drops (to conserve energy)
• appetite goes up (to promote make-up eating)
• cravings change to sweet and fatty foods (for fat accumulation)
• preoccupation with food dramatically increases (prioritizing eating for survival)
• avoidance of unnecessary physical activity (to conserve energy)

All these responses are designed to produce and store fat when extra food becomes available after a period of famine. Remember, the trigger for these adaptive responses is the famine experience. Famines include delayed eating (waiting to eat a significant time after hunger signals are felt), under eating (including dieting), missing meals, and eating poor quality food.

What’s a Mother To Do?

If bodies adapt to intermittent famines by adding fat, we have to stop the famines in order to prevent unhealthy weight gain. So we must help our children eat on time (right when they get hungry whenever possible), stop their under eating (eating too little or poor quality food), make sure they don’t miss meals and provide plenty of great quality food. So, this means get rid of the junk—all of it! Yes, you can.

As adults, we have to understand why bodies add fat and then relearn how to eat based on our hunger signals. And we have to teach and remind your children to do the same thing. Don’t worry if it is only two hours after the last time you or your child ate. If you, or they, are hungry, eat! However, let me say this again, that when and your kids eat, eat only quality foods (what I call REAL food—these are listed in my books), like breads, pasta, and other grain foods, meat, poultry and fish, plenty of veggies and fruits, and diary products. Pay attention to your cravings and your children’s cravings for balance and variety. Your body will tell you what you need if you listen to it and there are plenty of great real foods available. It will guide you to eat the right amounts and varieties of food.

A study was done with small children quite a few years ago. These children were provided with a buffet of good quality food choices. Invariably, left to their own devices, these little kids chose exactly the right foods over a few days to perfectly supply the caloric and nutrient needs of their bodies.
Encourage your children to eat more often, not less often!

About 90% of kids say they are hungry or very hungry between breakfast and lunch at school. A lot of kids aren’t even eating breakfast, which means they are starving by lunch. And this drastically affects their ability to concentrate, particularly in the hours before the lunch period. It also affects their food choices and portion sizes when lunchtime does come around.

The best thing you can do for your kids is to provide them with a solid breakfast first thing in the morning. I have recommendations for “solid” breakfast menus in my book. I eat breakfast and brunch every day, and yes, lunch too.

Encourage kids to eat every time they feel hungry. If they are not hungry first thing in the morning, have them eat something light if they can, and be sure they take emergency food (nuts, granola bars) with them to school. Unfortunately, many schools do not permit food in the halls or classrooms, which means a substantial breakfast is an absolute must. This helps prevent the make-up eating (bingeing on high sugar and fatty foods) later in the day.

On the flip side of this, if a child says he or she isn’t hungry, believe them. Never, ever force kids to eat. And never force a child or teen to keep eating when they say they are full. The old line, “You can’t leave the table until your plate is clean,” is abusive.

Include children in planning

Include kids in meal and snack planning. By including them, you are telling them you respect them and respect the needs of their bodies. You are saying you are as concerned about their hunger as they are. And this teaches kids to respect their own hunger signals and to plan for them. It also teaches them to talk to you about their diet so that you can help them adjust to their hunger needs.

10 things never to say to your child

  1. “How can you be hungry, you had a snack an hour ago?”
  2. “Don’t eat that now, it’s almost dinner time.”
  3. “If you had eaten all your lunch, you wouldn’t be hungry again now.”
  4. “I never ate breakfast when I was a kid and I grew up big and strong.”
  5. “There is no time to eat now. We have to get going.”
  6. “You can’t leave the table until your plate is empty.”
  7. “Sally is huge. She needs to start dieting and lose weight.”
  8. “You have to stop that after-school snacking. Do you want to end up looking like me?”
  9. “Have a little more. It’s your favorite.”
  10. “You can’t be full. You’ve hardly touched your food.”

10 things to encourage kids to eat right

  1. “Are you hungry?”
  2.  “Can I fix you a snack?”
  3.  “How long did breakfast hold you this morning?”
  4. “Do you have snack packed so you can have it before basketball practice?”
  5. “What did you eat for lunch at school today?”
  6. “Do you like the food I packed for your snack.”
  7. “What real foods would you like me to get at the grocery store for you?”
  8. “What are your five favorite dinners?”
  9. “What do you mean, ‘Johnny ate your lunch’?”
  10. “What are your five favorite real snack foods?”

For more information about childhood obesity and how to prevent it, “Naturally Thin® Kids” (Heartland Book Co.) is available at bookstores everywhere.
Eating disorders specialist Jean Antonello, RN, BSN, is the author of “Naturally Thin® Kids: How to Protect Your Kids from Obesity and Eating Disorders for Life” (Heartland Book Co.), “How to Become Naturally Thin® by Eating More” (Avon) and “Breaking Out of Food Jail” (Simon & Schuster). All books are available at

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