How Can I Protect My Child From Obesity?

By Gary E. Dudley, Ph. D.

Questions about weight control and obesity always conjure up ideas about diets and dieting. What "diet" has come to mean in our culture is "a time-limited period during which I will enforce a state of self induced deprivation, hunger, cravings, and related miseries." In a recent book, Dr. Brian Wansink advances the notion that "the best diet is one that you don't know you're on."

The word "diet," in fact, comes from the Latin word "diaeta" which means "a way of life." So, whereas modern usage refers to a time limited modification of our relation to and intake of food, the original meaning had to do with an unlimited routine, "a way of life."

Over the years, I've personally been acquainted with persons who, through "dieting", have lost over 2000 pounds (that's a ton!). However, they have also gained a ton and usually more. Dieting is simply not a useful approach to managing weight, and is especially ineffective at preventing chronic obesity.

Americans (and American children) are among the fattest people on the planet. Media "experts" advance a multitude of explanations: too much time playing computer games; not enough exercise; both parents working and too little supervision; poverty. While all of the above are interesting sociological ideas, the real reason (the only reason) we are fat is that we eat too much.

In his book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Dr. Wansink reports on a plethora of subtle factors present in our culture that encourage us to eat more than we need. He argues that these subtle forces undermine our ability to adequately monitor food intake and respond to internal cues of satiation, encouraging us instead to rely on an assortment of external cues to structure our eating and tell us when to stop. Among the more common factors for children are the following: 1.) filling their plate and encouraging them to eat everything on their plate (after all, people in China are starving). Letting the child serve himself may be a better idea. We know, for example, that a three year old served a large plate of macaroni and cheese will stop eating when he's full, but by the age of five, the child is most likely to eat until the food is gone. 2.) Leaving snack food in sight after providing a snack is more likely to produce "I want more" than if the snack food is put away out of sight after serving; 3.) When you are eating, eat! Watching TV (or any other distraction) during mealtime is more likely than not to result in overeating; and 4.) Be the policeperson of your pantry. Your children cannot load up on pop-tarts and potato chips if these junk food superstars don't make it into your house. I frequently hear from parents "he won't eat anything but junk food." I always ask, "How does that junk food get into your house?"

Dr. Wansink points out that reducing caloric intake by 20% would go unnoticed in the course of a day. The result for most people over the course of a year would be a weight loss of 10 to 20 pounds. If children are taught at an early age to avoid the many ways that our culture encourages them to eat more than they need, then perhaps we too could develop a life enhancing diet or "way of life."

Mindless Eating: Why People Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink, Ph.D., Bantam Books, 2006, New York, N.Y.