With one in five children becoming obese by the time they leave primary school and the Government U-turning on plans to curb junk food, what can we do as adults to educate our children against becoming overweight?
According to child experts in the US, the answer is simple: grown-ups need to stop banging on about dieting.
In new guidelines issued this week, experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics say children will stop developing body issues and disordered eating patterns if grown-ups just stop talking about their own weight in front of them.
They’ve come up with five, evidence-based strategies for parents and other adult family members to follow: don’t encourage dieting; don’t comment or tease about weight (yours or theirs); never calorie count; regularly eat meals together; encourage a balanced diet for fitness not weigh loss.
It’s blindingly obvious when you think about it: fill your child’s head with negative comments about your own weight and it’s only a matter of time before they start relating it to their own bodies. In fact, it’s the reason I quit dieting after a lifetime of slimming.
I was 15 when I first tried to lose weight, having witnessed my mum diet throughout my childhood in the Seventies. I don’t blame her in the slightest for influencing me because she was a product of her time: this was the decade where the dieting industry took off and I remember every single one of my friends’ mums being on The Grapefruit Diet at one point. They didn’t know any better.
What finally made me stop dieting was having a daughter of my own. We didn’t find out the sex of the baby until Sophie was born, but throughout my pregnancy I was secretly terrified of having a girl because I feared I would pass on my weight issues
My first diet was Rosemary Conley’s Hip ‘n’ Thigh plan, which promised to lose inches off my bottom half (without affecting the rest of me… like, really?) and thus set off a 25-year rollercoaster of dieting and bingeing that screwed with my head as much as my metabolism. There were times when I was thin, times when I was fatter, but at no time was I ever not trying to lose weight.
What finally made me stop dieting was having a daughter of my own in 2009, when I was 37. We didn’t find out the sex of the baby until Sophie was born, but throughout my pregnancy I was secretly terrified of having a girl because I feared I would pass my weight issues on. Thankfully, the opposite happened – I became far less preoccupied with how I looked and more concerned with how I felt. At long last, my health trumped my weight.
Now I make sure I never mention my weight in front of Sophie (despite being heavier than I’d like to be), never complain about how I look (ditto), and I would never let her see me diet. When her school sought permission for her to be weighed and measured for the Government’s National Child Measurement Programme (link: digital.nhs.uk/ncmp), her dad and I refused to give it. While we understood the intentions behind the scheme – identifying obesity in children at a young age can play a part in solving it – I baulked at our then four-year-old being introduced to scales. I didn’t want Sophie to know what it meant to be weighed, to know what fat meant or understand the word ‘diet’ when her vocabulary was still forming.
Now she’s seven, I’m confident my approach is working and I believe the AAP is right to educate adults into keeping quiet about dieting and weight loss.
While I’ve overheard a couple of her friends make comments about their tummies being fat, Sophie remains blissfully unconcerned with how she looks. We talk about food not in terms of good or bad, but which foods will give her the best kind of energy to run about the park with her friends. Don’t get me wrong, she eats chocolate, sweets, crisps and pizza but she’s aware that balancing them out with lots of vegetables will make her feel better.
I expect at some point she may get picky about her figure, particularly when it changes during those tricky teenage years. But hopefully we’ll have instilled her with enough body confidence for it to not be a big deal.