Has your teen started paying more attention to calorie counts lately? While a certain level of awareness is a good thing, some girls are feeling the pressure to be thin at a very early age. How can we help our kids get smart about eating right?
Watch a 6-year-old pack a lunch and you'll probably have to replace a cookie or six with a sandwich. But fast forward four blink-and-you'll-miss-'em years, and that same child is suddenly staring suspiciously at the snacks in her lunch box. "How many calories in this candy bar?" she asks, then shakes her head and removes it. "I want my lunch to be 300 calories total."
It's one of those parenting moments you have to see to believe, and after you see it, you can't forget it -- no matter how hard you try. Little wonder, then, that Carole Carson, author of From Fat to Fit: Turn Yourself into a Weapon of Mass Reduction, says that it's our job as parents to teach--and demonstrate--healthy eating habits for our kids.
Recognize the risksEven if your child isn't overtly counting calories, look out for signs that she may have an unhealthy obsession with her weight. "Pay attention to the child who insists upon skipping breakfastand/or lunch," cautions Carson, and adds that this includes kids who constantly make excuses at mealtime. "This child may be trying to starve his or her body into a desired shape."
Excessive exercise is another tipoff that something's not quite right. Fatigue after a tough basketball game? Normal. A child who pushes herself to the point of exhaustion or injury regularly? Not good.
Encourage good habitsOne of the easiest -- and best -- things you can do for your kids is to model the behaviors you want them to emulate, says Carson. "Build healthy habits for the entire family," she says. Let your kids see that food isn't a reward -- for you or for them. "Instead of eating in front of the television, sit down together as a family and review the events of the day over supper."
Carson also recommends getting kids involved in choosing and preparing meals and snacks that incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean dairy products, and protein. "Don't demonize any food," says Carson, who instead suggests simply limiting junk foods. She also says that attempting to control what kids eat is "an impossible task" that may even "encourage binge eating."
A better approach, says Carson, is to "get the entire family involved in fitness activities, meal planning and food preparation." Find fun ways to exercise together, by playing sports, going for family walks, or getting involved in home repair projects.
Address concerns head-onIf your tween or teen is suddenly counting calories, that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Becoming knowledgeable about the calories in food is the first step in conscious eating," says Carson. You can read labels and analyze nutritional content together.
If your daughter compares her own body to pictures she sees in magazines or online, talk about what she's seeing. Kids don't always understand that "the pencil-thin model who looks stylish in size 0 clothing is a fantasy resulting from the work of a makeup artist and a professional photographer," says Carson, who points out that the image may even be photoshopped. "In real life," she says, "the pencil-thin model may be anorexic and could be starving her heart." Let your kids know that the media promotes messages that are, at times, dangerous, and help her to be more comfortable in her own skin.
Although we can't insulate our kids from the constant bombardment of these messages, we can help them craft a response that's better for their self-esteem -- and their health.
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