I’ve taken time off this blog to consider whether what I preach still aligns with the current findings supported by the latest studies. And increasingly, I’ve found that there’s a dearth of research focused on the matters that concern me most. While research must necessarily explore nutrition and exercise science, I feel that the “best” (if such a thing exists) program will be useless unless the individual attempting to implement it is prepared to accept it.

What I’ve read continues to affirm my belief that successfully reducing high levels of overweight in this country will come not from pushing dietary restrictions and creating exercise programs, such as have lead to a billion-dollar fitness and weight loss industry. It will come from developing a greater understanding of what the forces acting on modern-day humans are that make them hold on to the behaviors that contribute to the gain and maintenance of excess body fat.

And that’s not something you can market via late-night infomercials.

Gee, I would have never known I was doing everything wrong if others hadn’t generously volunteered that information. *cough, cough*

I’ve witnessed a trend of attempting to “motivate” people by telling them everything they’re doing wrong. UGH. No matter how you slice it, negativity is not a good, lasting motivator for positive changes. As a matter of fact, there’s a form of “negative motivation” that’s called bullying, and schools, community organizations, social networking sites and even the media are working to eliminate it.

I see this type of “motivation” among health- and fitness-related professionals (and I include those not educated in the field, but who have a financial interest in having people follow their advice — MLM people, that’s you). Telling people who are making concerted efforts at changing their lifestyles that they’re still doing so many things wrong doesn’t get anyone anywhere — the focus is continually on the negative. C’mon, you’ve got to be able to find something positive for people to hold on to. That’ll be the lifeline that they use as they pull themselves upward.

So, for your reading pleasure, see below for a great set of guidelines to consider before you open your mouth or start typing. It comes from an elementary school class (thank you, Mrs. Morgan at Lindbergh-Schweitzer!), which is the age at which we have to start if we want to turn around the negative trends to which our adults have fallen prey.

So easy even a school kid can do it!

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Hey, I confess, I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen people engaged in so many injurious habits that I was convinced they were on the path to self-destruction. I felt the need to point out all the negatives, figuring that they needed to hear “the truth”.

Know what? I was wrong. What they needed more than anything was to be listened to. To be understood. There was something positive there, overlooked by everyone else — I just hadn’t tried hard enough to find it.

And once they knew I was listening, they started listening back.

I hear parents complain that their kids will only eat fast food. I find that very interesting, because children (particularly before they’re school-age) learn everything from adults. They’re not born with a “must have McDonald’s” gene. Someone must take them there and buy them something and teach them to eat it. And if that’s done enough (because it requires multiple visits to establish a habit like that), they will like it and want it…and soon, may want nothing else. And a parent, wanting to avoid a fight, will take them there. Children know how to be persistent when they know their persistence will be rewarded.

Kids learn through repetition. They learn by watching their parents. It does no good for a parent to nurture a bad habit by encouraging it, and then turn around and scold their kids for it. Let’s face it, the parent gets something out of it too. They get peace in the family, they get out of making a meal, they enjoy the food themselves. If you set up a contingency that a certain food is a punishment (“eat all your broccoli…”) and then use an addictive, sugar-laden food as a reward (“…and then you’ll get dessert”), the message is that “healthy food tastes yucky, food that’s ‘bad’ for you is yummy”. You are setting up an association that your kids will take with them through life. And it’s easier breaking an association when you’re young than when you’ve been carrying it around for the past 40 years.

Want your kids to eat healthy meals? Then you have to start with yourself. And that’s the tough part. As adults we want to feel like we’ve earned the right to eat what we want, even if it isn’t the greatest thing for us. But your children are little sponges and they soak up the info that you’re placing before them, whether or not you realize it.

I use a three-step approach to keep my kids on track with healthy foods:

1) Keep only healthy, whole, clean food in the house. Yeah, that’s easier said than done, but it’s possible. One of the first steps to establishing healthy eating is clearing the crap out of the kitchen. Not only does it make snacking on garbage impossible, it also serves as an indicator for how committed you yourself are to clean eating. This will also necessitate meal planning and preparation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to take a lot more time if done right.

2) Keep offering good food to your kids. If you ply them with broccoli but they balk, and you give them fast food “because they have to eat something”…forget it. Remember my comment about persistence? You just rewarded them for not giving up. The more often a food is offered the more likely that the child will eat it, that works for healthy food too. It can take multiple presentations before they develop a taste for it. But they, like adults, are quite ‘trainable’.

3) You have to eat the food yourself. And that’s the clincher, isn’t it? If you really don’t like broccoli and refuse to eat it, what makes you think your kids will show any interest? If you carry around the notion that healthy eating is the opposite of ‘normal eating’, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Consider all the messages that you send, buck up and make a lifestyle change.

The behaviorist in me needs to stress: don’t reward kids for eating healthy foods. You shouldn’t make a big deal of it at all. YOUR CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER EAT SOMETHING JUST TO PLEASE YOU. That’s a biggie, because you want to keep emotion out of the equation.

If you already have a ‘food issue’ that you’re fighting, be aware of the messages that you’re sending your children. If you don’t have an issue, for the love of God, don’t create one in your kids. They will have enough dietary obstacles in their paths as they grow. Take it upon yourself to help them establish healthy eating habits.

Hey, even following the guidelines above, your kids may not fully cooperate. Getting them to change their habits, particularly well-established ones, is not easy. You want easy? Take them to the burger joint for every meal. Offer loads of desserts. Keep bags of junk food in the house. That’s EASY. As a nation, we’re far too preoccupied with EASY. Changing habits is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re not on-board yourself. Make a commitment to set your kids on the path towards healthfulness while you’re still their nutritional gatekeeper. It’ll be the best gift you ever gave them.

What message does this send?

As the primary food-shopper for my family, I catch up on all the latest gossip by the grocery store check-out counter where I have nothing better to do than read magazine headlines and contemplate my navel.

While I was standing in line today, the cover of Woman’s World caught my eye, specifically the diet plan that they’re peddling this week. Rejoice, America, it’s the Food-Lovers’ Diet! As a behaviorist, I don’t even know where to start telling you how wrong this is. And please, don’t jump on me for taking the fun out of eating. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know how I feel about pimping food as entertainment. That doesn’t mean meals can’t taste good and be satisfying, but part of our struggle with our weight stems from the fact that many of us are in LOVE with food and use it to soothe ourselves. We’ve taken our relationship with what we eat to a whole new level of emotional dependence.

I want you to consider the images on the cover. The toffee bars and frosted cupcakes seem so sinful and decadent, and if we can eat them and lose weight, YAY!!! Although the article itself may tout reduced-calorie versions of those desserts, what that cover suggests is that we shouldn’t have to cut back on the foods, laden with sugar and fat, that we’ve been told contribute to the obesity epidemic.

What if you need to lose more than nine pounds? 😛

We are clinging to the expectation that there’s no need to change our eating behaviors. The scammers will feed us that idea in order to sell “miracle” weight loss products (or copies of magazines) knowing that we so desperately want to believe there’s an easy fix.  Someone who doesn’t even read the full article will, consciously or not, register that there’s still some other “more permissive” way of dropping pounds than giving your body the nutritional respect that it needs through clean eating. People are dutifully waiting for the holy grail of diets to fall from the skies — or be delivered by aliens — and turn the weight loss world upside down.

For long term success in getting blubber to go buh-bye you have to inventory your eating habits. If you’re trying to shoehorn “treats” into your eating plan on a daily basis, you’re squeezing out more nutritious food. If you constantly tell yourself that you “deserve” to indulge, what are you saying when you try to limit the indulgences? That you don’t deserve them, that you’re not worth it. And feeling worthless is not a great mindset with which to embark on a fat loss journey.

What you do deserve is a fighting chance at improving your health. Not letting go of the behaviors that packed on the pounds will not get you there.

Sometimes we need a dose of humility peppered with a helping of “walking in someone else’s shoes.” This is especially true when dealing with someone who’s embarked on a weight loss journey but is getting nowhere with it. No amount of education will do a trainer any good if  they can’t find a way to understand a client’s difficulties, or even worse, refuse to accept that such hardships exist.

Some years ago I had the following exchange with an obese young man:

“Exercise is fun!” I chirped happily.

“That’s because you don’t have to do it lugging around 280 pounds,” he shot back.

And you know what? He was right. His answer caught me off guard because I was trying to help him maintain a positive outlook, but the truth was I really didn’t have anything to say to make him feel better. I was pointing to the benefits of exercise, but he was still working on bending over to put his shoes on.

I’ve never been obese, although I did peak at 181 lbs for a week or two, right before giving birth to my heaviest baby (8 lbs, 5 oz) – but even that wasn’t terribly dramatic for my 5’11” frame and barely nudged me into the “overweight” category according to my BMI. While getting back into the 150s where I remain now took some months, I was so preoccupied with caring for the new family member that I never obsessed about it. Couple that with the fact that I don’t have the food issues that plague many Americans, and you can see why I’ve had to work hard to relate to people who have been fighting their weight for years, even decades. Even so, a gap remains between their thinking and mine.

Apparently, I’m not the only one trying to bridge this gap. Australian underwear model and personal trainer Paul “PJ” James made big news last year for putting on 90 lbs in order to better relate to his overweight clients. What he found was that losing that weight was not as simple as he expected, even with all his fitness knowledge. During the process of weight gain, he also gained a sugar/fat addiction that was tough to kick. And carrying around that excess weight made exercise more difficult. His joints ached and every movement required more effort.

James noted that the first three months were the most difficult because he was doing everything right, following his own fat loss plan, and still the weight wasn’t coming off. Breaking his junk food habit took a good six weeks. All this, when he had the benefit of knowing what proper eating and exercise were. Once the pounds started dropping, however, he said he regained his motivation and powered through with his weight loss.

A number of people have weighed in on the pros and cons of his experiment. Some say he’s “been there” and will be able to relate to what an overweight client may be going through, particularly because he struggled in the beginning and had to fight a food addiction. Others say that his efforts prove nothing because he wasn’t subject to the same stigma that befalls many overweight individuals, gained the weight over a short period of time using extreme measures (not the way most people gain) and will cash in on the instant fame that this stunt afforded him. Both of these points of view are valid; however, I’d like to underscore something else.

James didn’t make progress for about three months. Wait, let me stress this: THREE MONTHS. He worked for six weeks to overcome his sugar addiction. How long would someone without James’ experience have lasted on a fitness program that didn’t show results for a quarter of a year? By that time they’d figure that if they’re doing everything “right” and still not dropping fat, there’s something wrong with them and substantial weight loss is a pipe dream. Furthermore, it’s doubtful that James would have had faster results if someone had been yelling at him to get his act together, or calling him a fat, lazy slob like a trainer on the “reality-show-which-must-not-be-named” feels is necessary to do.

So if James’ story has a lesson, it’s not that 1) it’s possible to lose weight (we know it is) or 2) that someone who’s heavy for several months will fully understand what it’s like to overweight for decades (we know he won’t)…but rather that if you focus exclusively on weight loss as a measure of success, your motivation may peter out with the first few obstacles you encounter. If you’ve spent years putting on weight, prepare to invest substantial time into changing the behaviors that got you there. Focus on your lifestyle, not the scale.

However, there’s warning here for those of us who’ve never had to wage that fight. Really, we have no idea what we’re talking about. We’re the quintessential car mechanic who can’t drive and would be well served not to pass judgment on those who are still fighting. Use our knowledge and fitness experience to offer solutions, yes. Provide needed support, yes. Lay down the law, yes. But not pass judgment.

Along the lines of yesterday’s post regarding healthy tips, I wanted to address the practice of grinding up “stuff that’s good for you” (veggies) and hiding it in “stuff that’s not so good for you” (for example, baked sweets) in an effort to get some of the good stuff into recalcitrant children.

Cookbooks by Seinfeld, Lapine and others advocate hiding vegetables in the foods that kids already prefer. From an immediate, nutritional standpoint this method works, particularly when dealing with children who are absolutely stuck on a narrow list of foods.

But I’m not a nutritionist. I’m a mean 0ld behaviorist and prefer to look at the accidental messages that are sent when you adopt an approach that hinges on deception. Here’s my kill-joy take on this:

Yes, there is an issue with getting kids to eat veggies. (Heck, there’s an issue with getting adults to do it too!) If you apply the principles suggested in the cookbooks strictly and also nurture healthy eating behaviors then the method has merit. However, we’re talking stressed out, time-deficient parents here! The temptation to give your kids broccoli-enhanced brownies and think “well, at least they’re getting something good” can lead to developing not only a softer stance on getting them to eat undisguised vegetables, but even a tendency to offer more ameliorated sweets than you’d normally allow.

And since we’re talking about being “sneaky” and “deceptive” here (words that shouldn’t be necessary to describe your interactions with your kids), your children won’t have a clue about what’s in the brownies. All they know is that “mom/dad thinks it’s okay to eat extra brownies.” Hey, there’s a huge market out there for “7 veggies in a pill” — if people weren’t interested in taking the easy path, that stuff wouldn’t sell. So the possibility of sending the wrong message raises a huge cautionary flag for me.

Once out of your sight, kids will take with them what they’ve learned. Since the emphasis is on sneaking food into them as opposed to teaching them good eating habits…their food choices outside the home won’t be any healthier.

Bottom line: if you’re desperate to get something green into your kids, mixing it into cookie dough is technically better than nothing. But the effort should not stop there, tempting as that may be. You can keep adding veggies to desserts but at least transition into showing kids what you’re putting in there (so they recognize that they can eat it and not die of veggie poisoning), and work towards getting them to willingly eat on their own.

Yes, training. Not unlike training your dog. Training goes on every day; most of the time we’re not aware of it. We train our spouse, our kids, even our employer…and they train us. There’s so much to say about the process, but since this is the second part of a post on getting kids to eat healthy foods, I’ll keep my comments narrower.

Here are a few examples of what our own behaviors are training our kids to do.

I hear parents complain that their kids will only eat fast food. That’s very interesting, because children are not born with a “must have McDonald’s” gene. Someone must take them there and buy them something and teach them to eat it. And if that’s done enough times — because it requires multiple visits to establish a habit like that — they will like it and want it…and yes, may claim to want nothing else. And a parent, wanting to avoid a fight, may oblige them. Children know how to be persistent when they know their persistence will be rewarded. The parent is rewarded with happy kids, freedom from food preparation and perhaps even a “treat” for themselves. So the cycle continues and the food attraction strengthens even more.

This applies to much more than a trip to a burger joint. This type of learning happens with all sorts of foods. If you set up a contingency that a certain food is a punishment (“eat all your broccoli…”) and then use an addictive, sugar-laden food as a reward (“…and then you’ll get dessert”), the message is that healthy food is a negative that you’re enduring only to get to your sweet reward. It may seem like an effective way of getting your kids to eat foods you deem less-favorable, and in fact, it IS effective. The high sugar/fat aspect of most desserts makes them highly palatable and very powerful as rewards. However, you are setting up a food association that your kids will take with them through life if you don’t take steps to break it while they’re young.

Because I cannot, with a clear conscience, suggest that you really do this to your children, here’s a virtual experiment for you to try: imagine that every time you go to the store with your kids, you offer them snacks on the way home. Be consistent. Then, after a month or so of that, stop offering. What do you think will happen? They’ll ask for something to eat. They may even get upset if there’s nothing available. Their bodies are primed for food in that situation (“car following shopping”) because you’ve trained them to expect food.

Now, that may not sound earth-shattering to you, but consider that we do that sort of training every day and in a variety of different contexts. We send them messages in seemingly innocent ways. We bombard our kids with those kinds of contingencies. We teach them to overeat during holidays. We train them to eat a lot at buffets (“so that we get our money’s worth”). We buy them buckets of popcorn at movie theaters. And while years ago outings like that used to be held for special occasions, they’ve become commonplace as they’ve become more and more accessible, and that means more opportunities for indulgences and less time spent cooking meals at home. So the stakes have changed over the past two or three decades.

The bottom line is that our actions can carry long-reaching consequences. NO PARENT IS PERFECT, nor should they obsess about being so. I’m not trying to make you neurotic about your kids. Note that in the cases above, I’m talking about repetition, not rare instances. As I mentioned in my previous post, repeated offerings of good foods work in the same way. Unfortunately, many adults who are struggling with food issues themselves will reinforce consumption of less healthy foods in their kids. Please think about the messages that you’re sending and the way in which you yourself might be shaping a behavior in your child that will end up troublesome later on.

This simply brushes the surface. There is still so much to be said about the basics of training, food associations, persistence, negative effects of guilt and more. But those are topics for another day…