10 Beliefs About Childhood Obesity that Get in the Way

Boy and Broccoli

image: Tesco

This is a guest post by Jill Castle, RD and was originally posted here.

This is Part 1 of the blog series: Looking at Childhood Obesity through a Different Lens. Here, I take a different look at child weight problems, uncovering fundamental issues that deserve more attention.

To succeed or excel, sometimes we have to dig into and cut away the beliefs that hinder progress. I believe there are tenets about childhood obesity that get in the way of progress. Beliefs and widely held truths that need to be re-examined. Here’s my take:

Childhood Obesity is a Food Problem. We all know that childhood obesity is complex. We know that it involves genetics, activity level, socioeconomic status and more. But we continue to look to food as the solution. Fix the food, and we’ll fix kids and their weight. We’re lured by ‘eat this, not that’ or ‘eat right’ or the latest diet plan, all of which emphasize something is wrong with our food. The problem with this is that the right food on the plate doesn’t guarantee a healthy weight. Food is not that powerful–certainly not powerful enough to solve childhood obesity. Because food is just part of the problem, it can only be part of the solution.

Larger Children Get Plenty of Nutrition. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, children and teens, whether overweight or not, are deficient in a host of nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, fiber and potassium. When children eat nutritionally bankrupt foods, they naturally crowd out the nutrient-rich foods they need for growth and development. Worst of all, if perpetuated over time, unhealthy eating patterns can translate to nutrient deficiencies and adult-friendly diseases such as osteoporosis.

Heavy Children Can’t Be Hungry. I’ve heard this question many times, “How can this (heavier) child be hungry?” When children eat nutritionally devoid foods or skip meals, hunger can get out of control. For instance, the overweight teen trying to cut back on calories may skip breakfast (or under-eat) and “diet” at lunch, only to return home after school “starving.” Or consider the child who frequently eats processed food and who’s “never satisfied.” We know in these situations, overeating is more likely to occur because of hunger. I believe hunger can be managed for all children with regularly timed meals and snacks, nutrient-rich foods, wide variety and eye-appeal.

Bigger Kids Eat Too Much. Younger overweight kids do appear to eat more calories, according to a recent study in Pediatrics. However, overweight children and teens ate less than their normal weight counterparts. Researchers hypothesized that the level of physical activity in older kids had a greater influence on their weight. Weight status isn’t always a function of what kids eat. Modeling proper portion sizes for age and being active are key elements to a healthy weight, but a host of other factors are involved.

Certain Foods Are to Blame. Foods like chocolate milk, soda, candy and sweets are pinpointed as evildoers.  Yes, these foods contribute to overall calorie intake, potentially promoting excess weight gain. But, no singular food is the reason for a child’s weight. Rather, the big picture, including eating patterns, food choice, and exercise, are to blame. If you’re hung up on one food, broaden the lens and take a look at everything.

Children Cannot Manage Their Hunger. All children are born with an inherent ability to manage their appetite. However, over time, this intuition can be lost due to the types of foods offered, how they’re offered, and outside pressures to eat more or certain things. To help children maintain or regain appetite regulation, build awareness with language.  Toddlers can use ‘happy belly’ for satisfaction and ‘hungry belly’ for hunger. Older children or teens can further practice recognition of appetite signals by asking themselves if they are truly hungry, or using the Fruit and Veggie test (more on that in a later blog post).

Kids Can’t Be Trusted Around Food. Some larger children appear to be out of control with their eating—this may be true, but often, I have found that it has to do with meal structure, content and feeding practices. For example, if parents eliminate all sweets from the home (restrictive feeding practice) in an effort to minimize eating these foods, children may become overly focused on them when they’re outside of the home and appear to be “obsessed.” Or, if children have been offered lots of sweets and snacks at an early age, they develop a strong taste preference for these foods, and want them more. Last, if meals and snacks are haphazard, kids can become over-hungry or even overly focused on food, and eat more as a result. Kids can be trusted around food, especially if it is nutritious, predictable, and guided in a pleasant environment.

How You Feed Isn’t Important. I believe how children are fed is as important as what they eat, especially to weight status. For example, using responsive feeding techniques throughout childhood is known to help kids eat better. Disconnecting, or being unresponsive, may negatively impact healthy eating, and weight. I’ll address this more in Part 2 of this series.

Chubby Little Ones will Thin Out. Chunking up and thinning out is a normal part of a toddler’s physical development. We used to be able to count on this tenet, but not now. Toddlers have an unprecedented exposure to energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. When they get these foods over and over, they may develop a strong preference for them. Add in normal toddler development such as budding independence and food refusal (and the occasional tantrum), and you’ve got a perfect storm for unhealthy eating.

Kids are Little Adults. If you follow the dieting world and all the gimmicks that proclaim fast and easy weight loss, you may be tempted to try these on your child. Stop and think about this: dieting is the fastest track to weight gain and disordered eating. Adult methods don’t work well for kids, so make sure if you are getting help, that the program or advice is coming from a qualified health professional trained in working with kids.

What beliefs do you hold about childhood weight problems? Are they getting in the way?

Jill CastleJill Castle is a registered dietitian, mom of 4, and creator of Just the Right Byte. She is co-creator of the Fearless Feeding Community and co-author of the upcoming book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. You can find more about Jill here: www.JillCastle.com.

  • Jim

    Fat kids have bad parents.

    • Jill Castle

      Assuming you are posting this as an additional myth–and I agree–we shouldn’t make assumptions about parents. My experience has been that there is a great deal of confusion, or under-information about nutrition and feeding kids for parents, something i’ll touch on in the third installment.

  • Migratorymama

    Great post! My background is in child development, and I often tell people that children are good self-regulators when it comes to eating. Making your child “clean their plate” can (in some cases) alter a child’s ability to recognize the cues their body and brain are giving regarding when to stop eating. Thank you for this post! I look forward to reading your book!

    • Jill Castle

      Thanks Migratorymama! I think one of the keys is preservation of the internal regulation system, which can be so hard in today’s food climate.

  • Sarah

    My son is almost 4.5 years old & he is a HUGE eater yet constantly underweight (Very tall for his age, but low in weight ) — (We eat mostly organic, non-processed foods or try our best, at least) – I struggle with the ongoing question – is he eating too much as he eats very frequently – every hour to hour and a half and a sizeable serving – But nothing is pushed on him. He decides when he is hungry – We eat healthy meals & snacks at regular times every day & we together as a family. So I’m constantly trying to develop my sense of trust in his self-regulation & internal hunger cues & have faith that his own body knows what it needs & wants. He’s my first & only child, so it’s a learning curve! :)

    • Jill Castle

      Hi Sarah, It sounds like you are setting up an environment whereby your son can self-regulate, which is great. Sometimes when kids eat on the hour, they are in a growth spurt and it’s temporary. Other times, kids may be unsatisfied, appetite-wise, especially if meals are low in calories (ie, lots of high fiber whole grains, fruits and vegetables)–adding a source of healthy fat can help with satisfaction in this instance. I think as long as the foods are balanced and represent all groups (including healthy fats), and you’re in charge of the structure/he’s in charge of whether to eat and how much, then it may just be his eating style/appetite/constitution at play. If he’s active, growing well and steadily, and eating mostly nourishing foods (90:10 Rule), then enjoy getting to know his eating personality!

  • http://profiles.google.com/hays.mhays Michele Hays

    I like this post – but I would make one clarification. I have stopped using the word “obesity” in my blog, and instead use “lifestyle-related disease.” (I would greatly appreciate it if somebody could come up with a less clunky term!)

    I think the word “obesity” puts the focus in the wrong place. Although adopting a healthy lifestyle usually means losing weight, active people who eat well may still fall in the range of obese without being at risk for diseases usually associated with overweight. Conversely, thin people who are sedentary and eat badly are at a significantly higher risk for adverse health effects from disease than their heavier counterparts.

    We’re trying to change behavior, not bodies.

    • Jill Castle

      I hear you, and I agree the term turns some people off and does place the focus on body weight.

  • dudeitskansas

    I have had one too many degrading lectures from our physician about my son’s weight… we are going to stop taking him to the doctor. At first the doctor was concerned that he might be bullied at school… no, it’s in the doctor’s office where the doctor takes a Father Knows Best approach instead of helping us figure out what the problem is. We have kept our son moving and eating right (we had the training with our daughter who is now a freshman and in the normal height weight range), but when he suffered an injury requiring surgery last year, his surgeon kept him out of sports except swimming. He gained weight. He started eating alot less. The thing is, I think he could be exercising hours each day and it wouldn’t really matter. He doesn’t eat sweets. He “may” get one soda a week at most. He eats his veggies. I mean seriously, you want to help parents and kids get through this, then help BUT DO NOT give me another lecture or DEGRADE MY SON. We both left feeling completely beat up. And, I won’t go back again. Too bad. We had that pediatrician for a very long time.

  • Jorjie

    You have inspired me to do focus this weeks topics on my companies blog and Facebook to Child health and nutrition. If you would like to follow our facebook is “The Green Life & A Healthy Today” I would love to hear your thoughts on the information we are sharing. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

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  • ella

    I especially like that this article mentions eating PATTERNS and nutrient deficiency. When i see an obese person, child or adult, they all tend to have two things in common. Eating on a backwards schedule (Small or no breakfasts followed by nighttime binging) and looking terribly malnourished as a result.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wendi.k.stern Wendi Knut Stern

    Great article, Hemi. Thanks for sharing. When can we expect the remainder of the series? Keep up the good food!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/abruer Angela Bruer-Balouch

    This is a phenomenal post! As a mother of 3 children (ages, 10, 11, 14) I have my hands full too! A year ago I partnered with a nutrition expert Mark Macdonald who was recently featured on Dr. OZ and appears on CNN every Sat/Sun. He is a father of beautiful Hunter, and since we have used his plan of eating a balance of proteins, fats & carbs PFC not KFC we have lost over 30,000 pounds 300,000 inches… we are feeding for fuel… the balance of PFC allows our bodies to release stored fat! It’s BRILLIANT and we eat like babies – every 3 – 4 hours, 5 to 6 meals a day! If you are interested let me know!