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.

It’s obvious that our world has a weight problem. It should be equally obvious that it’s not something that will go away overnight. The state of overweight is a multifaceted issue that encompasses a broad range of variables, but today’s post is about something more specific that has a significant effect on us: the role of food in our lives.

It used to be that humans were responsible for gathering their own food — waaaay back when we were hunters and gatherers. Much of early man’s day was dedicated to finding sustenance for survival. As time went on, through division of labor and specialization, we left the food procurement and preparation to farmers, ranchers, bakers, cooks (moms, although admittedly, it’s not one of my stronger points) and the like.

Now, most of us in the industrialized world don’t worry about whether we’ll eat. We worry about where and what. Oh the choices! Narrowing down our options taxes our highly-developed brains. Interestingly, some of the biggest arguments my husband and I had (pre-kids) had to do with where we were going to dine. That’ll test the strength of your marriage: two very hungry humans in one little car, one vegetarian/one omnivore, so many possibilities but nothing seems to please both, neither wants to make the final decision.

No worries, we’ve gotten over that.

Over the years there’s been a shift from food-as-fuel to food-as-entertainment. The food industry has had a hand in this, and their marketing departments have been working overtime. Food portions have exploded to ridiculous sizes, food formulations contain a jacked up amount of salt/sugar/fat to excite our senses, all in multiple versions to appease our obsession with variety. We are encouraged to treat ourselves, indulge, make tonight special — because we’re worth it, we deserve it.

So…when we can make tonight special…and by extension of that, make every night special…what do we do when we really want something SPECIAL? When getting home through traffic deserves a treat, how do we treat ourselves on the days that call for a true celebration? In essence, we’ve raised the bar on indulgences.

And fun. Food must now be FUN, particularly when kids are involved. You see it in parents’ magazines and of course it’s prevalent in advertising to “kids of all ages”. We’re all brought back to our childhood when we could stuff ourselves silly and not worry about repercussions.

But the longer we cling to the notion that food serves a purpose other than to nourish us, the more we strengthen the influence that it has on our emotions. Most of the people I speak with have some sort of emotional link to food that makes dropping weight all that more difficult. That’s when the simple concept of “healthy eating and exercise” becomes not-so-simple.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t treat your body with food rewards. Treat your body with respect.

If you’re interested in food issues, I highly recommend setting aside time for viewing Prof. Kelly Brownell’s course, The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food (psyc123, filmed during the Fall 2008 semester), offered through Open Yale (it’s free!). Brownell is the director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and an excellent lecturer, and the information presented ranges from interesting to jaw-dropping. I’m not prepared to comment on the course as a whole since I’m only on the ninth lecture (there are 23 in all), but will say that it’s already exceeded my expectations.

Here’s a description, taken directly from the course website:

“This course encompasses the study of eating as it affects the health and well-being of every human. Topics include taste preferences, food aversions, the regulation of hunger and satiety, food as comfort and friendship, eating as social ritual, and social norms of blame for food problems. The politics of food discusses issues such as sustainable agriculture, organic farming, genetically modified foods, nutrition policy, and the influence of food and agriculture industries. Also examined are problems such as malnutrition, eating disorders, and the global obesity epidemic; the impact of food advertising aimed at children; poverty and food; and how each individual’s eating is affected by the modern environment.”

I strongly urge you to view the lecture topics and see if anything appeals. Happy learning!

Difficulties with the link above? Go to: http://oyc.yale.edu/psychology/the-psychology-biology-and-politics-of-food/

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…

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 behavior that you model for 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, 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, and that means effort on your part.

2) Keep offering good food to your kids. If you ply them with broccoli but they balk, so you give them fast food “because they have to eat something”…forget it. You just rewarded them for their refusal to eat the good stuff. 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.

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Hey, even following the guidelines above, your kids may not cooperate. Getting them to change their habits, particularly well-established ones, is not easy. It takes consistency on your part. You want easy? Take them to the burger joint for every meal. Offer loads of desserts. Keep bags of junk food in the house. Eat in front of the TV. That’s EASY. As a nation, we’re far too preoccupied with EASY. Time to take off the blinders and see what we’re really doing to ourselves.