Thursday, July 25, 2013

Do nine-year olds diet?

Last week, we were in a line of traffic behind a bus with a big weight-loss ad.  This prompted my nine-year old to tell me about a girl in their class who "wants to lose heaps of weight".  I kept it casual and said, "You know it's great to think about eating healthy food and exercising to keep well.  You do lots of healthy exercising and Mum works hard at cooking you guys good meals so you don't need to worry about what you eat."  The conversation moved on.

Nine years old.  I thought we had a bit more time.  It looks like the time is now.

I don't want for a minute to discourage parents who are tackling a weight problem their children might have developed.  Childhood obesity has long-term health ramifications.  I don't know much about this child's situation but if her parents are taking good nutritional advice to help her get a healthier lifestyle, well, good on them.

But of course in today's world you get anxious as soon as you start to hear young girls discussing body size and diets.  And here is the twin peril - a society who has so lost touch with healthy food and portion size that we have children who are struggling with their health because of obesity and a society so obsessed with being thin that we have children who are choosing not to eat.

And here we are as parents trying to land somewhere in the middle and find a balance between promoting healthy food and not making our kids paranoid about every bite they take.  We all start out thrilled when they begin to feed well and progress to solids without dramas.  We love to feed our little ones and we are thrilled when our early culinary adventures meet with success.  But then at some point, we have to begin to think about limits to food:  "No, it's nearly dinner time.  You need to wait," or "You've already had a lot of treats today.  Let's choose something else."  And I find it hard sometime to work out when it's right to do the most natural thing in the world - feed my child - and when I need to say "no" or "not yet" in order to teach them to think through food choices and quantities.

Adding to this complex balancing act is the difficulty of working out what food is healthy anymore.  Ideally, we cook our own food from fresh ingredients.  In reality, most of us rely on packaged food at least some of the time.  Words like "lite", "fat-free" or "natural" jostle for our attention on the supermarket shelves but have been proven to be virtually meaningless when it comes to making a healthy food choice.  And, sure, we can read the fine print on the side of the packet, but I have no idea how much salt is okay in 100 grams and even the RDI doesn't really help.  If it's 34% of my daily intake should I have it or not?  What will the other foods I eat today contain?  If I was able to say something like, "An apple pie I bake at home will have 20% of my daily salt intake per slice and an apple pie I buy frozen from the supermarket will have 60% of my daily salt intake per slice" then I'd know where I am.  But as it is, I just have all these numbers and no idea how to make sense of them.  I guess the answer is to rely on stuff you make yourself as much as possible.

Here's a really good illustration of how confusing "healthy" food claims are in our supermarkets:


Anonymous said...

Mmmm ... interesting timing. My Gr. 2 daughter came home this week and said that a girl in her class had started calling her fat! (she's on about the 30th percentile for weight!) I was pretty concerned actually! You wonder where she's getting it from! Mind you, 'fat' is one of those words that no-one wants to use face-to-face, but the word is everywhere in children's books, movies etc! Kids are probably quite confused ... Fleur

Deb said...

AGHGH! That is concerning. Why is this such a big deal with kids now? Or has it always been like that and I'm only just noticing?