Some people struggle with an issue, work to overcome it, and in the process decide to explore its origins. It’s not unusual to hear of someone citing a personal event that inspired them to choose a particular profession. We all know people like that.

I’m not one of them. As a matter of fact, maybe I’m a touch oblivious at times, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that it hit me that most of the people with whom I came in contact did not think the same way I did.

What am I talking about?

At the risk of dating myself, I remember watching an episode of Happy Days (remember that show?) in which Joanie (the teenage daughter in the series’ central family) was dumped by her boyfriend, or dumped him, or some teen-angst-ridden combination of the two. At the end of the episode, her mother brought her a jar of crunchy peanut butter and a spoon, and Joanie proceeded to consume the entire thing. Or at least we assumed that she ate all of it, as foreshadowed by an earlier comment by her mom that she herself had eaten a jar of PB after a similar breakup of hers when she was the same age.

I will never forget that episode, mainly because the notion of eating during a time of sadness or high stress (or excitement, for that matter) was completely foreign to me. Why would someone address their emotional pain with food?

Another incident, also in my teens, totally bowled me over. I remember being at high school, in a roomful of girls. I don’t know how the topic turned to food, but one girl mentioned how she would have loved to have Cheryl Tiegs’ body (supermodel from the ’80s) just so that she could ruin it by eating. Another wistfully admitted that it was a fantasy of hers to be able to just eat and eat and eat.

I so did not get it. While I’d gone through my own weight-related ups and downs as a teen, I never thought of food as anything other than fuel. Some foods I liked, others I didn’t. But when I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t hungry. When I was, I ate.

There is a saying, “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” It makes perfect sense to me. What I discovered, however, was that so many people I knew where using food to try to solve problems that had nothing to do with hunger. That method inevitably backfires. When I realized that, within a circle of friends and acquaintances, I was the exception and not the norm, I began asking why.

That’s when I realized that there weren’t many others interested in the same question. As a stay-at-home-mom, I used some of my “free” (ha!) time to become certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine. While it was never my intention to work exclusively in that capacity, I did consider it as a possibility. After all, wasn’t I the perfect candidate? My weight wasn’t an issue; I enjoyed exercising and eating a healthy, whole foods diet; I’d sailed through two pregnancies with a textbook-perfect weight gain that was lost smoothly; and I wanted to spread the word that all you needed to do to get the body of your dreams was (1) eat less, and (2) move more.

IfYouDon'tSucceedTryTrainer

Well, maaaaaybe…or maybe not…

Well, no. I wasn’t the perfect trainer. As a matter of fact, I was probably the worst candidate imaginable.

It became obvious to me rather quickly that l had no idea what it was like to deal with a chronic overweight condition. I didn’t know what cravings were. I didn’t understand how difficult it could be for someone to resist certain foods, or how they might feel ‘hunger’ when their bodies weren’t lacking calories. I couldn’t appreciate why starting and sticking to an exercise regimen could be so tough. And I didn’t get what a powerful effect societal bias could exert against overweight individuals.

What’s more, I wasn’t the only personal trainer who could be so clueless. After sitting in on numerous online and in-person conversations, it dawned on me that those people most drawn to this relatively-young profession — youthful, unattached, athletic, healthy, etc. — were those least likely to be able to relate to their clients.

Educated as a psychologist, I expected that there was more going on behind the scenes than simply recalcitrant clients refusing to follow their trainers’ directions. This set me on the path to explore the “other” components that contributed to weight gain and avoidance of exercise.

And that’s what this blog is all about. 🙂

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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.

Prepare yourself for some ridicule. Because when you set foot in the gym, the “regulars” will look at you and roll their eyes. They might make comments. Or give you icy stares if you break the rules of gym etiquette. They might even be trying to intimidate you so that you retreat to a safe corner where the cardio machines are. When you do eventually give up going to the gym (yes, the odds are stacked against you) you won’t be tempted to even consider returning.

Here’s my advice: ignore them. I know this is easier said than done, but I want you to focus on this. You’re not embarking on an exercise program so that people like you. You’re doing it to save your life. You’re doing it so that you can be stronger, run faster, live longer. Your goals are yours, and yours alone. Others in the gym don’t care if you fail or succeed. But you do.

Those others? They were beginners once too. They might have done biceps curls in the squat rack or tried talking to someone who was in the middle of a set . But 9 times out of 10 even the “regulars” can be pretty clueless, and that includes the personal trainers. The seasoned veterans who DO know what they’re doing didn’t learn everything overnight. It took time and practice and a willingness to ask questions and search for accurate information. And yes, even make mistakes.

Please don’t give up. Our kids are growing up in a world where everyone’s getting increasingly more sedentary. Technology has provided us with myriad more opportunities to move less. What we need now are people willing to buck that trend and establish another that moves us in the direction of more activity and a healthier future. They are people like you, who choose the first of the year to start something new.

You can do that, but you have to keep going.  Little by little, bit by bit.

And all those naysayers at the gym? I hope you kick their asses some day. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

I’m counting on you.

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.

This is for squatting. If you're moving your arms and not your legs, you're not squatting.

First, for all the gym novices out there: the photo to the right is a squat rack. If you do biceps curls there, everyone’s going to think you’re a moron. If you’re not sure where the E-Z-curl bars are, please ask the facility personnel.

About 16 years ago I bought my first pair of weights: they were 3-lb dumbbells coated in green plastic. One of my best friends had been certified as a personal trainer and was trying to get me away from the obsessive lap swimming that was my life. She took me to her gym, ran me through some exercises. But you know what? I didn’t get it. I couldn’t understand the concept of training with weights because it seemed to burn too few calories. I was into distance swimming, several miles a day (and yes, I counted in miles). I wouldn’t even bother getting into the water if I only had time for a mile. In that case, I’d run about five miles and call it a “workout”.

The name of the game was burning calories. So lifting weights seemed pointless. Muscle-building? Why? I was almost 6-ft tall! The last thing I wanted was to be even bigger.

I didn’t GET IT.

It wasn’t until a few years later, after recurrent ear infections from constantly being wet, that the entire concept hit me, but it took several stages to get there. I started out with machines, then free weights, and soon I wasn’t happy unless I was intimidating the poor guy trying to work in with me.

My point is, we have to start somewhere. Most gym novices have little to no idea of what to do, particularly those of us who grew up in the aerobics era when arm-flapping was all the rage. Training wisdom is not encoded on our genes. While I feel that guidance from a knowledgeable trainer is more cost-effective than wandering through the twists and turns of the fitness information wilderness, most people won’t hire one (and, frankly, some trainers don’t deserve to be hired). They’ll search for info on the Internet, and maybe 50% of what they learn will be WRONG, depending on where they go.

Then they’ll go to the gym and end up as the ridiculed subject of blog posts.

Many people who are giving up on their resolutions right now will soon revert to their old habits, convinced that “weight loss” or “getting in shape” is too complicated, and will search for an easier way to go about it. And believe me, they’ll find it in the form of detox fasts, “shake weights” and magical fitness breakthrough pills that promise results without the effort. In a sense, when someone tries and fails going about it the ‘right way’ (um, what exactly is that?), they provide fodder for the scammers. These outrageous products wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a market for them. If you’re a trainer and not frustrated by the amount of misinformation on the ‘net, wake up. That’s your competition out there.

Next time I’m at a training facility and see someone curling in the squat rack, I won’t chuckle to myself. I’m going to gently and quietly tell them they look like an idiot and point them in the right direction. I urge you to do the same. The truth may hurt, but if you go about it the right way, someday they’ll thank you for it.

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.