All of the current frenzy over childhood obesity has sparked a new concern: panicked parents who are doing more harm than good.
Scared by the alarming reports that this could be the first generation to not outlive their parents, some well-intentioned moms and dads are clamping down with strict food rules that can backfire.
"Parents can freak out a bit and make a bad situation worse," said pediatrician David Ludwig, author of the "Ending the Food Fight" and director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital Boston.
Food restrictions, pressuring and criticism don't work at any age, but especially not during adolescence, said Ludwig, who believes these coercive strategies can have negative consequences.
"These methods teach children what not to do instead of what to do," he said. "They can leave a child feeling upset, erode self-esteem and take a toll on the parent-child relationship."
Rigidly denying children certain foods may help you win a battle, but you will likely lose the long-term war, Ludwig said.
Ellyn Satter, a dietitian, family therapist and author of "Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming," believes restricting food is not simply counterproductive - she thinks it's actually one of the reasons behind the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity.
"Food-restricted children get fatter, not thinner, over time," she said.
Studies have shown that children whose food intake is restricted become preoccupied with food and are prone to overeat when they get a chance. If certain "forbidden" foods are made off-limits, children only learn to value them more.
In his new book, Ludwig describes two pillars of parenting that form the foundation of his obesity-prevention approach.
The first is protecting the family environment - creating a home that makes it easy and convenient to make smart choices. That means stocking the fridge and pantry with the foods and beverages you want to encourage, such as low-fat milk, water and 100 percent juice instead of sugary sodas and fruit drinks.
The second is modeling. Rather than pressuring your kids to eat certain foods, your best bet is to eat those foods yourself. A parent's own behavior is one of the most powerful influences of all, Ludwig said. "If you do it, they'll learn to do it."
Winning the obesity battle
Here are some tips to help you avoid common mistakes:
- Rethink low fat. You may be on a low fat diet, but that's not necessarily a good approach for your child. "Children don't do well on low fat diets," Satter said. Fat is critical for children's growth and it provides the staying power to get them from one meal to the next, she said. For satisfying snacks, Satter recommends including some fat - peanut butter with apple slices, cheese with whole-grain crackers or dip with baby carrots.
- Get out of a vegetable rut. Don't be satisfied if French fries are the only vegetables your children will eat. Try to expand their choices by continuing to offer a variety of veggies at mealtime or for snacks (it may take up to 10 times before they eventually like something new). Take your kids to a farmers market and get them involved in preparing vegetables or even growing them. Gardening is a proven technique to help convert picky eaters.
- Learn to use praise. In place of criticism and conflict, Ludwig recommends complimenting children when they do something right - such as eating all their vegetables. "Praise can be a powerful positive reinforcement, but I'm surprised how infrequently parents use it," he said.
- Do not ban foods. Studies have shown that kids who are forbidden to eat certain foods at home find a way to sneak them when they get a chance. So taking pride in being a no-sugar mom may not get you the results you desire. Satter believes regularly offering treats after meals or as snacks keeps your child from coveting them even more.
- Know your role. Satter looks at childhood feeding as a "division of responsibility." That means parents should focus on the what, when and where of feeding, then trust children to decide what and how much to eat from what's put on the table. She said adopting this mind-set will "revolutionize meal times at any home where dinner time has become a battle that nobody wins."
- Provide adequate structure. Being too lenient can be as harmful as being too strict. Studies have shown that overly permissive parents are more likely to have overweight or obese children. The best approach is to provide consistent and clear limits. That includes staying on schedule with regular mealtimes, rather than constant grazing or snacking.
- Cut the criticism. Negative comments about your children's appearance can be devastating to their self-esteem, and this often sets the stage for disordered eating down the road. Criticizing your children's weight can make them feel flawed in every way, Satter said.
- Be positive. Watch your words when talking about your own weight. Studies have shown that women who complain about their own bodies are more likely to have children, particularly daughters, who are preoccupied with food and become constant dieters.