Over the past week as I’m going through my Facebook newsfeed, Every. Single. One. Of the suggested posts was, in some way, food related. The food you should eat. The food you shouldn’t eat. The food you should eat to lose weight. The food that protects against cancer, heart disease and claims to stave off death indefinitely.
This idea that food is salvation is everywhere, especially if you are a parent, because policy makers know a mom wants nothing more than to protect her child from harm. In Ontario, parents were asked what it means to raise a healthy kid, and parents were very clear with their definition.
“When we asked parents what it means to raise a healthy kid, they said they want their children to grow up in a supportive community, surrounded by family and friends. They want them to know they are loved and valued, to be accepting of others, to “fit in” at school, to be self-confident, and to be able to make healthy choices throughout their lives.” (No Time To Wait: The Healthy Kid Strategy, Ontario Healthy Kids Panel)
Pretty straight forward stuff. Policy makers, however, translated this message as “[parents] need some support to help their children become and stay at a healthy weight.”
I’m not sure what being a healthy weight has to do with a supportive community, family and friends, being loved, valued, and accepted. What does this mean for the fat and the skinny kids?
A recent video by Strong4Life has gone viral, spreading the message that parents are to blame for the future health consequences of their children. I won’t post the link, I don’t even recommend you watch it as it does nothing more than spread hopelessness and shame stigmatized individuals.
If the future health of your child was truly at the core of this video PSA, what you watched would have very clearly stated…
CHILDREN COME IN A VARIETY OF SHAPES AND SIZES, REGARDLESS OF WHAT KIDS EAT
“Among efforts to slim down kids or prevent them from becoming fat, one of the most popular tactics is to restrict energy dense foods — those are the “bad” foods high in calories. The thinking is that by filling kids up with low-calorie, low-fat, high fiber foods like fruits and vegetables, they will eat fewer calories and not get as big. This popular belief continues despite volumes of contrary evidence showing that children will naturally grow up to be a range of weights, shapes and sizes unrelated to their diets; and that the focus on “healthy eating,” restricting calories and fats, has harmful effects for growing children, both physically and emotionally…” Read more
But… but…but… if we don’t insist on a healthy diet in childhood, children will grow up to become adults at risk for cardiovascular disease. Right? Um… not really.
CHILDHOOD DIET HAS LITTLE (IF ANY) EFFECT ON FUTURE ADULT HEALTH
“No direct evidence links childhood nutrition to cardiovascular disease in adulthood.”
The Dietary Intervention in Children Study showed that lowering dietary fat to less than 29% in 8 – 10 year old children to reduce LDL cholesterol had a negligible effect. Not only does reducing dietary fat in a child’s diet do little to reduce the future possibility of heart disease, fat-reducing dietary intervention puts children at risk for nutritional deficiency. According to the Summary of an ASNS Workshop by John A. Milner and Richard G. Allison, “Dietary fat supplies essential fatty acids (EFA) and aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. It is a substrate for the production of hormones and mediators. Fat, especially in infancy and early childhood, is essential for neurological development and brain function.”
Three separate studies tracked a total of 4,564 children with serum cholesterol above the 75th percentile and concluded that cholesterol screening in childhood is an unreliable way to predict high cholesterol in adulthood.
THERE IS A WAY TO WORK WITH NORMAL CHILDHOOD EATING BEHAVIOUR
Nature, in all her creationary wisdom created the toddler – a mobile and infinitely curious being with little life experience. To prevent evolutionary failure of the human race, Nature made the toddler finicky and orally suspicious, with a natural aversion to things that taste bitter (and are more likely to be poisonous). Nature tries to plan for all possible contingencies.
Nature also created the vegetable, and in a cruel ironic twist, made the vegetable taste bitter. Humans discovered the vegetable and decreed that all human beings shall eat the vegetables in copious amounts or suffer an untimely cardiac event.
And Nature shook her wise, creationary head.
Then, in a stunning display of creating a problem entirely for the purpose of giving nutritional scientists something to do, humans tried to get the toddlers to eat the vegetables.
And Nature laughed and laughed… and laughed.
The best way to encourage healthy eating habits is to follow a Division of Responsibility. Parents are responsible for offering a variety of delicious food (while being considerate to the eating ability of all family members), as well as when the food is eaten and where. Children are responsible for choosing how much to eat. Kids who are anxious around food need plenty of no-pressure exposure to new foods before they will consider that food safe to try. Children who plot in the upper percentiles still need to eat.
Feeding children well has very little to do with getting kids to eat healthy foods now, and a whole lot to do with building a healthy relationship with food that will last through their entire lives.
DIETING! DOES! NOT! WORK!
Current dietary policy is focused on “the obesity epidemic,” a problem that sudden changes to BMI cut-offs helped create.
Current anti-obesity policy frequently recommends restrictive feeding practices – eat less of the tasty food to reach a “healthy weight.” What does that even mean? Are we to assume that everybody’s normal weight is in the middle of the bell curve? It also fails to consider the genetic predisposition of those at either end of the bell curve, and the curve itself does not determine the physical ability or health of the individual at any weight.
If we apply this same logic to the other half of the BMI equation, we would be bombarded with suggestions to make short people grow taller. Just set a healthy height to include 1/3 of the general population and aggressively promote the list of health consequences for being short. After all, short people need to change – they were just too lazy to grow tall… never going outside in the sunshine. We’ll blame the video games played in dark rooms, and eating too many gravity-dense foods. What does genetics have to do with it anyway?
Hey…psst… maybe it’s not the food? If healthy eating was all there was to it, we could all become athletes by sitting on the sofa, eating salad.
IS POLICY BASED ON EVIDENCE OR OPINION?
If the government directives for healthy eating were truly aimed at improving the health of the nation through dietary interventions, the focus of that national conversation would be on HOW to eat, not what.
“An excessive focus on fat can lead to undesirable behaviors by children and parents as well as to misdirected efforts by health-promotion organizations and the private sector food industry. Negative messages using terms such as avoid and limit and messages using terms that require integration across different foods such as percentage or total fat are more apt to be ineffective and counterproductive. Positive messages designed to assist consumers select foods for an enjoyable, varied diet appropriate to their lifestyle could result in significant benefit to public health.”
The Strong4Life video does not appear to be about the needs of children or the concern of parents. The flashbacks of drive-thru windows, video games and birthday cake depict behaviours that are frequently inconsistent with the reality of many who naturally, normally, and genetically have a weight in the upper percentiles. The S4L video also demonstrates how parents are frequently left to solve problems with feeding without proper support. That much, unfortunately, is too often true.
When parents told the Ontario Healthy Kids Panel what it means to raise a healthy kid, they described a very recognizable hierarchy of needs. Safety, security, social acceptance and love are essential to the mental health of all human beings, none of which are, nor should they ever be, conditional on an individual’s weight.
Viral Obesity Video Gone Wild: Response by Healthy Little Eaters
The Role of Dietary Fat in Child Nutrition and Development: Summary of an ASNS Workshop John A. Milner and Richard G. Allison 1999 The American Society for Nutritional Sciences