You need to go on a diet are words kids should never hear. They're rough and hold much more forceful and shameful meaning than the words "I need to go on a diet." The former seems to sting a little more on the ears of a bystander, especially when you hear it said to a young girl, presumably under 10. This is exactly what I heard a mother say to her daughter last week while grocery shopping.
All three of us were in the same section of the produce department when the young girl spotted a container of chocolate-covered almonds sitting above a display of bananas. "Mommy, can we get those?" she asked with her finger pointing up toward the almonds.
"No," the mother said with a sigh. Then what she said next blew me away, "You need to go on a diet...now."
The girl's mother didn't sound particularly angry, but she did sound frustrated. At first the girl just raised her eyebrows. Then she looked down at her feet. The two walked off with their cart toward the bread section where I saw mom grab a sample of some pastry that was on display. I turned my attention toward my cart and went on my way.
The first thing I thought of was how the girl must have felt. In a moment of exasperation, the mom's comment was just another ho-hum remark made to a kid like, "You're not going anywhere until you clean up your room." The phrase, "you need to go on a diet," is a judgment statement that no parent should make lightly. To the young girl, those words likely translated to "you're fat," or "you're ugly," or "you're not good enough." Children, much less adults, shouldn't have to face the pressure of dieting as we know it today.
According to the American Heart Association, approximately one in three children is overweight. Most children need to eat healthier and move more, but they don't need to be told to go on a diet. Instead parents need to pave the way by eating healthy themselves and talking about what healthy eating means with their children. Setting a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do double standard when it comes to eating sends kids conflicting messages. In other words, parents should keep their hands out of the cookie jar, too.
As I was checking out with my groceries, I caught a glimpse of the mother-daughter duo in a nearby lane. Along with the 12-pack of soda, I saw a couple bags of chips and several boxes of sugary snack foods that made their way down the conveyor belt. Suddenly the chocolate-covered almonds the girl requested earlier didn't seem so bad in comparison to the heap of refined foods her mom opted to pick up.
Maybe this young girl did need to lose weight, but the way her mom approached it was all wrong. When her daughter asked for the almonds, instead of saying "you need to go on a diet," mom could have said something like:
- "Let's look for a healthier snack instead."
- "Why don't you go pick out [insert a favorite fruit here] instead?"
- Or what I was thinking, "Great idea! I'll substitute one of the other crappy junk foods on my list for the chocolate-covered almonds. Everyday after dinner you can have a couple."
Discussing healthy body and healthy food concerns could have been addressed at a different time.
Deprivation Doesn't Work
It's ok to have a slice of pizza or a scoop of ice cream every once in a while, but not all the time. Substitute healthier alternatives or decrease the overall volume of unhealthy foods. Parents set the standard. In the situation with this girl, maybe the mom envisioned her daughter mauling the entire container of chocolate-covered almonds in one sitting. By reframing it and telling her daughter she could have a couple after dinner, the standard has been set that it's a small treat and not a free-for-all.
Talking Healthy at the Dinner Table
Anytime a family has a chance to eat together at the dinner table is a good time to talk about healthy eating, if only for two minutes. If a child needs to lose weight, it's highly likely that the quality of food needs to change as much as the quantity. With my kids, I like to focus on the positive of healthy foods, but try to educate them on the pitfalls of less-than-healthy foods. A few things that I've mentioned at my table include:
- Protein builds muscle that can helps you run faster.
- Avocados, eggs [fill in a healthy fat] are full of healthy fat that make your hair shiny and skin glow.
- All these vegetables are full of vitamins that help keep colds away.
- Did you know that all the water you drink helps your brain think better?
- Too much sugar can create bugs in your belly [bacteria], but eating more fresh food helps keep them away.
Keeping the message positive encourages kids to eat healthy. Using scare tactics like, "If you eat this you'll get fat," or "This food will give you a heart attack," to a very young child is barely comprehensible.
Don't give up on trying healthy foods at mealtime. We all have different taste preferences, including kids. Introducing them to different healthy fruits, vegetables and flavors on a regular basis is a great way to build longterm healthy habits that last a lifetime.
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Traci is a nationally recognized health and fitness expert who has been featured on The TODAY Show and Dr. Oz. Traci is available for corporate speaking events and wellness coaching, as well as private training. Contact Traci here.