Mother Guilt and Vegetables

Worry. Worry. Worry.

I’m a mom. I accept that I will never not worry about my children. I’ve worried about my kids since they were conceived. Will I be a good parent? Will I be able to carry twins to term? Are they growing normally? What is that mysterious shadow on the ultrasound?

And then they were born. Are they eating enough? Pooping enough? Are they meeting developmental milestones? It’s awfully quiet, is the baby monitor working?

Then they started school. Are they keeping up with their peers? Are they listening to the teacher? Are they being bullied? Did I pack enough food in their lunch?

These, plus a bazillion other worries that randomly pop into my head over the course of a day make me wonder if I haven’t developed some undiagnosed worry disorder. See? I got this worry gig all go with a giddy-up! I really don’t need any extra help with the worry.

You’re not eating enough vegetables and neither are your kids!

Yeah. Hey, thanks for pointing out the obvious and giving me something else to worry about. 

According to Eat Right Ontario, over half of all Canadian children aren’t eating the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables. For TJ, that’s 5 servings, for me, the recommendation is 7-8 servings every single day. Ugh! The suggestions to pack all those fruit and veggies into a day, for me anyway, means eating certain foods and in a way I don’t want to. Not because I’m lazy or crunched for time, and although there might be a little truth to either, I just don’t find these meal suggestions all that rewarding. Scrambled Eggs & fruit

We’re told that eating vegetables, as part of a low-fat diet, is associated with maintaining a healthy weight and therefore a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, (among other things like cancer and diabetes). That’s all well and good, but it’s also worth noting that stress also increases the risk cardiovascular disease and contributes to unhealthy habits like smoking (something else that can increase cancer risk), drinking and overeating.  Stress is also effective at diminishing appetite, which is how it often works for me. Never have I been lost in the throes of worry and thought, “Gee, I could really go for a salad!” I know when my emotions guide my eating, I’m in the mood for cookies, if I feel up to eating at all. Fats are wonderful tasting, comforting foods. Salad, not so much.

“Consumption of vegetables and fruits is associated with reduced risk of many chronic diseases. Specifically, moderate* evidence indicates that intake of at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruits per day is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. Some vegetables and fruits may be protective against certain types of cancer.” (Dietary Guidelines For Americans, 2010)

Maybe it’s me, but I find it quite peculiar how the agencies responsible for advising the public to eat better are stressing us out about what we aren’t eating, and using the fear of (sometimes biased and inconsistent) research to frighten the public into eating in a way that is unnatural to many. As if that wasn’t enough, there is that added element of guilt to force the public into compliance with recommendations that a majority of people seem to find difficult to follow.

“Most vegetables and fruits, when prepared without added fats or sugars, are relatively low in calories. Eating them instead of higher calorie foods can help adults and children achieve and maintain a healthy weight.” (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010)

In summary, if you aren’t eating your daily rainbow, you’re going to get fat. Well, isn’t that just pippy! So Canadians aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables. Americans aren’t doing much better, according to nationally recorded statistics.

“In studies that have held total calorie intake constant, there is little evidence that any individual food groups or beverages have a unique impact on body weight.” (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010)

TJ has been steadily adding up the ounces to settle back onto the 25th percentile for weight, and I thank our lucky carbohydrates and fats for that. While I stress needlessly about my slender seven-year-old, the USDA would like to share “the reality that a large percentage of Americans are overweight or obese and/or at risk of various chronic diseases.” Statistics Canada “reports that two out of every three adults in Canada are overweight or obese.” Both nations will try to sell you on the idea that fruit and vegetables are the solution. 

“Although healthy eating patterns around the world are diverse, some common threads exist. They are abundant in vegetables and fruits…” (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010)

Sitting next to me at the dinner table is a seven year old boy who barely eats fruit and doesn’t eat any vegetables. None.

Fear. Fear. Fear.

Thanks a whole lot. Psst. That’s not helping. At. All.

“The 2005 Dietary Guidelines, for instance, raised the recommendation for fruits and vegetables from five to nine a day. That is 4 1⁄2 cups of virtually naked fruits and vegetables—with only the smallest amounts of salt, fat or sugar. The intent, of course, wasn’t to satisfy nutritional requirements… The intent is to get us to fill up on relatively low-calorie food so we don’t eat so much. Such tactics defeat Consumers’ best intentions. Well and interestingly prepared fruits and vegetables are tasty and rewarding. However, as any experienced dieter knows, trying to fill up on them – particularly when they are unadorned – is quite another matter. I have worked with far too many recovering dieters who have tried to do just that, and after a while they say that they simply can’t look at another pile of vegetables.” (Dietary Guidelines and Food Guide Pyramid Incapacitate Consumers and Contribute to Distorted Eating Attitudes and Behaviors, Ellyn Satter)

So if all the overweight North Americans eat more fruit and veggies, no one will be hungry enough to eat other stuff that has all those delicious fats and calories in it. That might be a good idea in theory, but in practice, it’s certainly not happening at my table. It makes me wonder if all this harping on about vegetables and obesity and diet-that-prevents-disease is only successful at contributing to the very problem Health Canada and the CDC / USDA claim to want to solve.

Image courtesy Deviant Art

Image courtesy Deviant Art

While North Americans are told to stay away from those terrible fats and calories, across the pond, the French are chowing down on cheese and bread. Just on the other side of the Atlantic, humans are continuing the tradition of making good tasting food and family meals a priority. Big surprise, the French are not dropping in the streets from cardiovascular disease and despite their love for good tasting food, they don’t appear to be all that worried about weight.

“You’ll sometimes hear about the ‘French paradox’, which describes the phenomenon of low heart disease rates in France ‘despite’ a diet rich in saturated fat. Well, it seems that this ‘paradox’ is not limited to France, but is alive and well in several other countries too including the UK, Germany, Austria, Finland, Belgium, Iceland, the Netherlands and Switzerland. In other words, it’s not a paradox at all. It’s only a paradox if one believes saturated fat causes heart disease. The thing is, there’s really no good evidence that it does.” (The French paradox is not a paradox, Dr. John Briffa)

I would hazard to guess that this “paradox” phenomenon has little to do with what the French are eating and a whole lot more with how the French eat. For example, I have been advised by several different healthcare professionals (dietitians, doctors,therapists) to limit the family meal to no longer than 30 minutes. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, one that doesn’t work at all for us specifically. Perhaps setting a timed meal encourages a child to focus on the meal? In other words, hurry up and eat.

Fellow blogger and Parisienne, LeeLoo, tells me it’s quite common for an average daily dinner in France to last between 45 minutes to an hour. At least at her table, there seems to be more of a focus on presenting the meal in stages, and engaging the company present at the table.

My husband arrives home with 90 minutes to spend with us before the kids are tucked in for the night. I spend most of my day with children that are not my own. Although I adore these little people that are an important part of my life, the most special time of the day is when my husband and our children can be together. Instead of encouraging that precious little family time to bond and share our experiences of the day, we’ve been advised to set limits on the time we spend learning to enjoy each other’s company around food. I find it somewhat ironic that supporters of “healthy” eating are quick to blame fast-food for the “obesity crisis”, when even our home cooked fare is expected to be fast.

pancake meal

Covering all the food groups with our version of the rainbow.

Is it what we’re eating that needs to change or how we eat? TJ will, on occasion, linger at the table, truly enjoying what he is eating, and he is welcome to take all the time he wants. There are days when dinner takes longer than the prescribed thirty minutes, usually, it’s less. Both kids eat until they are full, not when the clock says dinner is over. Regularly, they both consider leaving “a little space” for dessert. As a family, we are all nutritionally and psychologically better for the experience.

“Rather than emphasizing food selection and portion sizes, ecSatter operationalizes the Dietary Guidelines by emphasizing structured opportunities to eat, and within that structure, encouraging people to eat preferred food in satisfying amounts. However, when nutrition educators attempt to apply ecSatter, many feel they are violating a deeply felt obligation to promote food-policy adherence.” (Hierarchy of Food Needs, Ellyn Satter)

This weekend, we celebrated a bittersweet victory. TJ announced, after declining yet another serving of broccoli (for the several hundredth time), that he is comfortable with what he eats and doesn’t want to try anything new. As disappointing as that sounds, this is a huge achievement. For the first time in his life, he eats in response to hunger. I’d love to tell you that I was thrilled to hear this at the time, (and I am), but nattering away in my ear, spoiling the moment, was the veggie eating brainwashing that I grew up with and continue to hear. Victory was drowned in the defeating knowledge that my son may never, ever, eat vegetables.

Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

Instead, I added a heaping pile of failure to my plate because, eventually, my son will be taught these guidelines for healthy eating at school. How will he interpret the recommendations that in order to be healthy and “normal”, he has to eat lots of vegetables, something that causes him a great deal of discomfort?

Worry. Guilt. Fear. Aaaaaargh!

Perhaps the best approach is to empower TJ by encouraging him to continue eating in a healthy way, with respect to his appetite, hunger and ability, and to enjoy the food he can eat rather than trying to persuade and pressure him to eat things he just can’t.

“Experimenting with novel food builds on trustworthy access to personally rewarding food. Selecting food for instrumental reasons is on the apex of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs and can only be approached – and sustained – when all underlying needs are consistently satisfied.” (Hierarchy of Food Needs, Ellyn Satter)

I’m a mom. I will never not worry about my children. My son’s selective eating has forced me to question all the “what to eat” sources of advice, mainly to forgive myself for the guilt I have that vegetables are not, and may never be, part of his diet. I question “healthy eating” advice to release myself of the fear that somehow, a diet without vegetables translates into a future of obesity and disease. I cannot allow guilt and worry to guide our eating.

TJ will learn to eat what he eats when he is ready to eat it, and not when government dietary guidelines dictate. The road ahead into the undiscovered realm of food is still long, but at the moment, we are at a place I never dreamed we would reach. 

My son is becoming a competent eater

* * *

Links in this article:

Dietary Guidelines and Food Guide Pyramid Incapacitate Consumers and Contribute to Distorted Eating Attitudes and Behaviors, Ellyn Satter

Hierarchy of Food Needs, Ellyn Satter

The French Paradox is Not a Paradox, Dr. Briffa

Mindful Eating: The French Paradox, Psychology Today

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010

State-Specific Trends in Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Adults, 2000-2009, CDC

Canada’s Food Guide

*Moderate evidence reflects somewhat less evidence or less consistent evidence. The body of evidence may include studies of weaker design and/or some inconsistency in results. The studies may be susceptible to some bias, but not enough to invalidate the results, or the body of evidence may not be as generalizable to the population of interest. (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010)


11 responses to “Mother Guilt and Vegetables

  1. Oh, I see now… this is 2 years, not two months old 😀
    I usually get your FB updates, so I didn’t think this was an old post. How are things now?

    • Things are quite different- I’ve taken a blogging hiatus to devote my energies to some personal matters. An update… The exploratory eating windows open more regularly and TJ has been gradually experimenting with all the food groups on his own. The progress is very slow, but huge!! Thank you for asking. 🙂

  2. Amen to that:)

    So in Canada they advise you to get SEVEN to EIGHT (golly-gosh!) portions of veg and fruit a day? I the UK they thought of moving from the 5-a-day, but then they decided it wasn’t worth it as the evidence is really not there (and people struggle with the 5 a day in any case…)

  3. I agree with so much of this. One thing that I think doesn’t really come across is that eating loads of fruits and vegetables involves a fair amount of work! Those veggies and fruits must be purchased at the peak of their ripeness, taken home, washed, stored, peeled, chopped, and then possibly cooked, all before they go bad and start looking scary and stinking within just a few days. I LOVE vegetables but this drives even me crazy. Frozen fruits and veggies are helpful but only get you so far.

  4. Speaking as an adult selective eater, he will probably change his mind when, as he gets older (i.e. teens to young adulthood), he starts eating at restaurants more often. At that point, he’ll have more of an incentive to broaden his diet, because most non-fast-food restaurants don’t offer a lot of fruit-and-veggie-less meals.

    • That’s a very comforting thought, thank you :). Did you find that adolescence and adulthood helped you accept more variety? I find the adult selective eaters I’ve spoken with that were less pressured to eat as kids are most likely to try new foods as adults.

  5. If I haven’t posted before to thank you for sharing your experiences (well, even if I have), let me first start by saying a huge THANK YOU! You could have easily been writing about me and my family! I’m an incessant worrier to the point of OCD when it comes feeding my daughter (been that way since birth and challenges with breastfeeding). She is 4 and, not unlike your son, shuns ALL vegetables, to the point where she also recently made her own declaration that she doesn’t like vegetables and will never eat them, followed up with a reminder that she controls her body and no one can make her do anything (this part of the declaration didn’t bother me, as we talk regularly about who about ownership of one’s own body). She does enjoy a fair variety of fruit, but there’s no telling at any given opportunity whether she’ll actually eat any of the fruit being served.
    I’ve driven myself mad at times thinking about what she’s not eating and how far off the mark she is as far as US nutritional guidelines are concerned. I’ve also come to question these types of guidelines as a means of breaking free from the guilt as well as by the realization that even a fruit and veggie lover like myself would be hard pressed to meet the guidelines (my total volumetric consumption of food from all categories is probably less than just the recommended amount of fruits and veggies on most days–of course this is a guess b/c I do NOT monitor my food intake). I’ve only recently come across Ellyn Satter’s work, which has offered comfort and hope that I can reclaim a sense of peace surrounding mealtimes and eventually kick [at least some of the] worrying, guilt, and compulsion to control to the curb.
    BTW–are you familiar with Brene Brown? She’s written a lot about shame and empathy and believes that “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change,” and that shame “is much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.” So these public campaigns designed to shame the populace into eating “healthier” are very likely indeed having the exact opposite effect.

  6. My son, the youngest of three, ate virtually no vegetables, (only romain lettuce with creamy dressing and artichokes) from the time he began eating table foods. I never insisted, only continued to offer, the vegetables. the rest of the family routinely ate. Then he grew up, went away to college and discovered broccoli, asparagus, tofu (! really?) sweet potatoes and other vegetables. He finally tried them on his own. So don’t give up.

  7. I remember when my boys were born and the heath care community bombarded me with information about how much children were to eat at every stage. When my boys were toddlers, I remember thinking that is alot of food. Instead of listening to their cues, I tried to feed them according to the “charts”. Fruit, veggies, protien, carbs, dairy at every meal. And then the snacks to top it off. I felt like a failure when they didn’t consume their required amounts. I feel this pressure attributed to my children’s feeding challenges. One of whom is selective and the other is picky. Mom’s of yester year, did not have the plethora of this type of information and fed their kids from instinct. Maybe it is time for parents to listen to their “guts” and take all this feeding information in stride. I wish I knew of Ellyn Satter and Dr. Rowell back then. Maybe referals to
    this two women’s literature should be in the informtion pakages that we are given in the hospital….

  8. I really enjoy your posts and appreciate your refreshing no-pressure attitude towards your son. It’s helped me gain perspective on where my son is with his own food issues, and to prioritize our need for trust and comfort around food over meeting some benchmark for variety in his diet. Keep up the good work.

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