Genevieve’s Story: How one adolescent girl escaped the diet trap and became naturally thin.
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, www.naturally-thin.com
My daughter, Genevieve, was a blooming thirteen years old when she came to me one day, complaining that she had gone from size 5 pants to size 9—in about six months! I hadn’t noticed that she cared about her size before this, but she was obviously alarmed now.
“Mom, you have to teach me what you teach people in your seminars about being naturally thin,” she begged. “I just keep getting bigger. What can I do so I don’t get fat?”
Because she was obviously in an adolescent growth spurt, I wasn’t alarmed about Genevieve’s “sudden” size increase. She didn’t look fat and, although she had some new padding around her middle, I considered that normal for her age–a temporary “bloom” of young womanhood. However, that same bloom had caused such a panic in me at age thirteen that I had reacted by dieting and fighting my body, and hating it, for nearly twenty years. So, I was worried about Genevieve’s alarm, concerned that she was vulnerable to the same diet trap I had fallen into thirty years before.
Genevieve’s real crisis was her fear, which caused her to stop trusting her body.
Weight gain, especially the relatively rapid weight gain during puberty in girls, can cause anxiety and even panic in young adolescents. Genevieve was beginning to worry that her body was out of control and that she couldn’t trust her appetite anymore. For the first time in her life, she had become aware of the amount of food she was eating, and she began to watch what other, thinner girls were eating. She had never talked about dieting with her friends before. The subject had bored her. But now she began to listen as they shared the latest weight-loss ideas. Fortunately, Genevieve never actually started a diet herself, but she did try to cut back on her lunches. And she ignored her intense hunger during hockey practice instead of getting a snack.
Children must never abandon instinctive eating or body-controlled eating if they want to avoid obesity and eating disorders. Genevieve was on the verge of doing just that–consciously abandoning her natural eating instincts in order to control her weight gain. And she, like all adolescents, had absolutely no idea how dangerous her “solution” really was.
Before traveling too far down that road, Genevieve learned new information about her body that allayed her fears and showed her why she must stay in tune with her natural eating instincts. I coached Genevieve in the Naturally Thin® principles (outlined in my first books), and she discovered that staying in touch with her natural appetite and eating good-quality food whenever she got hungry would normalize her appetite and stabilize her weight at the best place for her. Applying the principles with discipline, she carefully avoided going hungry and ate only good-quality food. Genevieve found that she could trust her body if she focused on eating well.
If she had given up her natural, instinctive eating patterns , she would have shifted the main control for her eating behavior from her body signals to her own ideas of what, when, and how much she should eat. This would have made her extremely vulnerable to developing both weight and eating problems from that day forward–maybe forever.
It is this shift away from instinctive, natural eating behavior that contributes most powerfully to kids’ weight and eating problems. It can happen consciously (based on a decision that a kid makes, as it nearly did in Genevieve’s case), or it can also happen without the kid’s awareness or intention.
What other factors cause the shift away from instinctive eating? Genevieve is a good example of how multitudes of teenage and even preteen girls consciously start fighting their bodies’ normal need for food, because of fear.
But many kids unconsciously control their eating, unaware of their fears about their changing body shape. And sometimes a parent, because of anxiety, rigid expectations or ignorance, (especially if a child becomes overweight), assumes control for a child’s diet, overriding the child’s natural eating patterns. Many of these parents, overweight themselves, are afraid that their child will suffer the same struggle if the parents don’t intervene. Often no one actually disrupts instinctive eating. It simply becomes impossible for kids to stay in touch with their bodies because of poor food availability. A hungry body can’t be well satisfied when the refrigerator or cupboards only store unhealthy food choices. In many situations such as after school practices, kids have no food available at all. Even when food is present in vending machines, for example, many kids don’t carry adequate money to buy it.
It doesn’t matter to bodies what interferes with the food supply. The effects are the same. Whenever bodies don’t get good food at the right time, the control of food intake shifts away from the body. Bodies aren’t built to figure out why. They’re built to adapt.
These are the three basic ways kids lose touch with their bodies’ natural, instinctive eating patterns:
- Children or adolescents themselves start to consciously or unconsciously interfere with their normal eating instincts for various reasons (fear, athletics).
- Parents or caregivers consciously or unconsciously interfere with kids’ eating and/or food availability.
- Food availability is not adequate, either quantitatively (not enough food for hungry kids) or qualitatively (not enough good quality food), or both.
The third trouble area, inadequate food availability, is rarely deliberate (excepting in the case of adults trying to get overweight kids to eat less). More often it is caused by schedule conflicts, time constraints, and inadequate knowledge about food quality. For example, there isn’t time to eat a decent breakfast, or soccer practice starts right after school with no time for a snack. School lunch may be served at 12:45, almost six hours after breakfast and long after hunger has set in.
But whatever causes kids to lose touch with their natural eating instincts, we can prevent kids’ eating and weight problems by getting them back in touch with their bodies’ instinctive eating patterns.
Fortunately, Genevieve talked to me before she started dieting or making any concerted effort to control her eating. She didn’t skip meals or try to restrict her eating too much. But there were areas where she needed to make some adjustments and get back in touch with her body signals.
The information I shared with her reassured her that her body was doing just fine, and she needed to cooperate with it instead of fighting it. She simply needed to avoid going hungry and choose good quality foods. Genevieve was perhaps the best student I ever coached. She did everything I told her to do, and it paid off. She was motivated and had confidence in what I said, but I couldn’t have done it for her. I simply showed her the path.
Parents (and others who care) can help their kids get on the path, too, with the information and support in Naturally Thin® Kids. The path is paved with simple principles that can be applied to children’s dietary habits not for a few weeks or months, but for a lifetime of healthy eating.
I had discovered fourteen years earlier that weight and eating problems were much more complicated than simply too much food and/or too little exercise. Although these things are important, they are not single-handedly responsible for obesity and eating problems. I knew Genevieve’s struggle could only be solved and these potential problems prevented by teaching her how her body works. Her understanding of and cooperation with her body were the keys to her success.
The happy ending
I taught Genevieve the principles of adaptation and showed her how to eat instinctively to stay naturally slim ten years ago. Genevieve is twenty-four now–slim and happy, and eating! She has never been on a diet. She wasn’t really cured of anything. She was never “fat” or troubled with an eating disorder. She was rescued in advance—saved forever from the struggles of obesity, artificial weight control and endless dieting because she learned how to cooperate with her body’s natural eating instincts.
I have thought many times since Genevieve’s request years ago about what might have happened to her if I hadn’t known what to say—if I had had no answer for her. What if I’d still been dieting myself, struggling against my body’s hunger and still trying to burn calories by exercising? It’s a frightening thought, but I probably would have suggested a diet—some calorie restriction along with regular exercise. This may sound quite harmless to you now, but I hope that by the time you finish reading this book the idea horrifies you. I lost nearly two decades of my life to the diet lifestyle, and the notion that I might well have doomed my daughter to the same purgatory is truly frightening. In fact, it inspired me to write Naturally Thin® Kids.
Posted in Articles