Food, obesity, kids, and guilt

A few months ago, when Moxie solicited Bad Mommy/Daddy Confessions, she was looking for one-time horrors, and explicitly ruled out ongoing failings.  But, truth be told, I spend a lot more mental and emotional energy worrying about the fact that D doesn’t eat any vegetables than about the time I turned my back on him in the grocery cart and he fell on his head.  The fall scared the heck out of me at the time, but he survived, and I know that even the best parents have occasional lapses of that sort.  But deep down, I’m convinced that my son’s eating habits are a sign of my failure.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately around the internet about the health consequences of being overweight, the new Food Pyramid, childhood obesity,and Cookie Monster’s new message that "cookies are a sometimes food." I think it’s an important conversation to have as a society, but it drives me slightly insane on a personal level.  One of these days I’m going to stuff a little ziplock bag full of green pepper slices up the nose of a parent who smugly tells me that their child just loves vegetables because they’ve always set a good example. 

Things D will eat these days include all sorts of breads, muffins, pancakes and waffles.  Milk, juice, yogurt smoothies (sometimes).  Raisins.  Cheese.  Fish sticks (sometimes).  Scrambled eggs (sometimes).  Chicken "dinosaurs" and nuggets.  Ice cream, cookies, and cake.  But not icing.  Pizza crusts but not the part with sauce.  Hot dogs, although he prefers the bun with nothing on it.  Grilled cheese sandwiches. Peanut butter, but not jelly.  Apple slices when offered by his friend’s mother, but not when offered by me.  That’s about it.  He used to like blueberries, but won’t eat them now.  He’s the only 4 year old I’ve ever heard of who won’t eat plain spaghetti, no butter or sauce.  Pretty much the only fruit or vegetables he consumes are what we put into the muffins.  So we make a lot of muffins.

I’ve read Ellyn Satter’s terrific How to Get Your Kid To Eat — But Not Too Much and generally try to follow its principles.  We do more "short-order cooking" (e.g. microwaving one of his preferred foods) than she recommends, but the alternative would be his eating just bread for multiple meals, which doesn’t seem like an improvement.  We give him stars for trying new foods; five stars earn him small toys that he covets.  Last weekend, he threw up after we insisted that he take a single bite of mashed potatoes at the seder if he wanted any desert.

Is D overweight?  No.  If anything, he’s on the skinny side.  If one of his preferred foods isn’t available, he’ll generally do without eating.  He’s active and healthy, so we try not to worry too much.

Meanwhile N, at 18 months, will eat pretty much anything he can swallow.  He loves tomatoes, and screams with frustration if I try to eat one in front of him without sharing.  The only food I can think of that he’s rejected outright is avocado.  And — I swear — we haven’t done anything differently with the two boys.  If anything, N’s been exposed to more convenience foods.  Go figure.

Last week, Reuters ran a story under the headline First Week Critical in Childhood Obesity — US Study.  The article began:

"What you feed a newborn baby during the first week of life could be critical in deciding whether that baby grows up to be obese, U.S. researchers said on Monday."

and later explained:

"Writing in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, they said each additional 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of weight gained during the first eight days of life increased a baby’s risk of becoming an overweight adult by about 10 percent."

It sounds like this is a pure correlational study.  If that’s the case, I’m not convinced that this is about anything the parents do or don’t do.  I could make an argument that this might mean, instead, that even in the first week, humans have different thresholds for when they feel "full."

13 Responses to “Food, obesity, kids, and guilt”

  1. Andrea Says:

    I so relate. As an overweight person my whole life, I’m trying hard to raise my children with healthy attitudes towards food. We are vegetarians who eat a variety of foods, including plenty of vegetables. The almost three year old shuns almost all of them. I try not to worry or make a big deal out of it, but I see her friends eating carrots or whatever and it amazes me. And that study you cite at the end seems ridiculous to me; newborn appetites are impossible to predict or control. Either they nurse 24/7 or you’re worrying they’re not getting enough. For what it’s worth, my children both gained a lot of weight early, but are long and skinny now.

  2. Phantom Scribbler Says:

    My son is on the same food kick as yours: all carbohydrates, all the time. (Actually, your son’s diet is downright diverse compared to mine — we’re vegetarians, and my guy doesn’t like sweets except ice cream.)
    Oddly, my son is fascinated with cooking, cookbooks, cooking shows — even though he would refuse to consume the vast majority of foods being prepared. The key to that paradox may be that some children find the world’s variety to be somewhat stressful, and have to expose themselves to it one manageable little bit at a time.
    It can be frustrating, especially when he begs to bake something that he has no intention of eating. And I get jealous when I see other parents offering their kids foods that mine won’t touch. But I’m trying to be patient and let his taste buds develop on their own schedule. In the meantime, I try to encourage his interest in different foods, and hope that he’ll become more adventurous as he gets older.
    Two more thoughts: one is that breastfed newborns actually lose some weight in the first week of life, so that study, if it correlates to anything at all, may just be about the effects formula v. breastmilk. The other is that I recently saw a study comparing parentally described “picky eaters” to non-picky eaters, and found little difference between the two. I’ll try to find it for you…

  3. bitchphd Says:

    Sit on him!
    No, kidding. I just hang on to the theory that if you don’t stress out at them about food, they’ll end up with healthy diets. My mom *always* had crappy junk food in the house, and we ate a *lot* of it–and now I just don’t really have a taste for most of it, especially the sweet stuff. And my husband’s mom was a food fretter, and he eats junk all the damn time. PK, thankfully, is a pretty broad-minded eater, but he went through phases where he wasn’t. I kind of really think it’s a total tossup.
    Which isn’t to say that I don’t empathize with the fretting; I do. But I kind of worry about the cultural emphasis on things like cookie monster, etc.; yeah, we do need to quit acting like McD’s is good food for kids, but really, cookie monster likes cookies. I wish we’d relax about it.

  4. Maggie Says:

    Another irritating picky eater food habit: my cousin’s daughter had about 5 foods that she’d eat. But not if she got any one of them too often – if she had nuggets 2 nights in a row, she would refuse them for the next week. As my cousin said, it’s really hard to maintain the rotational balance when there are 7 days in the week and only 5 foods that the kid will eat!
    My aunt’s proffered solution: milkshakes. But picky eater started rejecting those, too, after the third day in a row.

  5. Amber Says:

    I feel for you – my (half) brother was like that growing up, and is still like that, at age 20. With him, we found out in his late teens (once he was really able to analyze it and express himself) that he has huge problems with food texture rather than taste. It really hasn’t helped find a solution, but it has made my family more compassionate towards him because somehow that seems more understandable than just not liking practically every food known to man. He still doesn’t eat any vegetables (except tomato sauce on pasta) and eats far too many sweets, but he’s active, smart, and in very good shape. He’s trying to branch out, but it is very difficult for him, as the wrong texture triggers his gag reflex, which does not exactly encourage further experimentation!
    There is some hope for him in that both his half-brother and half-sister had food texture issues growing up, and in their mid-20’s they finally managed to get out from under it. His sister eats pretty much everything, and his brother is still somewhat picky, but nothing compared to what he was growing up. He has a cousin too who has the same sorts of issues, and is now finally starting to be able to eat a good variety of things now that he’s in his late 20’s. There was also an uncle with the same sort of thing… yes, there seems to be a strong family link!
    Anyways, he’ll survive, and I congratulate you for not being too hard on your son for this. My parents really turned it into a power struggle for several years starting when my brother was about your son’s age and it was miserable for the whole family. Finally they went to a family therapist and she said something to this effect – “look, he’s still growing, he’s thriving, he’s learning well and the only problem is that he won’t eat what you want him to eat. Give it up, and be grateful that he’s doing as well as he is. Yes, he probably won’t be quite as tall as he might have been if he ate well, but he’s going to be fine.” That made a big difference for my parents, and those awful nightly food battles finally ended. They found some vitamins he could eat, and from then on they’ve just let him set the pace for what he’s going to eat.

  6. danigirl Says:

    I’m nodding my head vigourously – I’ve got a picky 3yo and a 15 mos old who eats everything and anything. It baffles me. One day I hit the patience wall with my fussy 3yo and insisted he eat ONE green bean before he be allowed to leave the table. After a 30 minute battle of wills, he finally took a bite – and promptly threw up over the entire table.
    He’s 90th percentile for height and 50th for weight, so I try not to worry too much, but I hate the fact that every dinner is a battle. One day they will be (very large) teenagers and eating us out of house and home…

  7. Fred Vincy Says:

    Our experience with two supports your observation that taste is as much about the kid as what we do. Our 11 y.o. has long eaten a variety of foods, while our 8 y.o. sounds like D — basically cheese, milk, butter, bread, pasta, oatmeal, sugar. He does eat some fruits and a very small number of vegetables (he likes carrots w/ Ranch).
    This can be very frustrating at times, but I try to remind myself that my job is to make a variety of options available to him, and that, whatever happens now, ultimately the job of eating a healthy diet (and the consequences of doing or not doing so) will be his.

  8. Mer Says:

    At the risk of having a bag of pepper slices up my nose, my daughter is one of the veggie eaters (though she’s not so hot on most fruit). She loves her carbs, but she’s also very prone to constipation. If she’s not getting 3-4 servings of fruit/veggies a day, she’s holding on to me and crying as she tries to poop. Talk about awful. When that happens and it’s time to break the logjam, we all go uber-fiber. That is, our meals are all fruits and veggies. No carbs, and protein is minimal. If DH & I eat rice or bread or pasta, it’s too hard to deny it to my DD. So we all have beans, veggies, fruit, etc.
    We also don’t force her to eat – during logjam-breaking times or otherwise. We present the food; she can take it or leave it. We don’t applaud or reward her eating well, and we don’t freak out, force her or bribe her when she refuses. (During logjam-breaking times, if she doesn’t eat anything, fine, but the next meal is all fruits and veggies. Eventually, she caves and gets her fiber on.)
    At first, my DH had a real hard time with this concept. “What if she’s hungry???” he would wail. And I would say, “Then she’ll eat really well at the next meal time, and it probably won’t take long for her to figure out that refusing to eat what’s offered does NOT translate into getting to eat what she wants.” There have been many nights when she has gone to bed with only two bites of dinner in her stomach, but she always seems to live to tell the tale…
    My husband also will sometimes try to force the one bite issue, and I have to remind him that it’s not worth turning mealtime into a power struggle. She’s a toddler and will be hard-headed sometimes, and it usually has nothing to do with liking or not liking the food.
    Also, my daughter is 18 months so I think it’s a different world getting her to eat well versus a 4-year-old who is capable of more complex thoughts, emotions, communiation; has a longer memory/history of family routines; and has a much more developed sense of identity, preference, etc. Talk to me in two years and see how we’re doing! LOL

  9. ElizabethN Says:

    Phantom, the study included only people who had been formula-fed as infants. So there’s probably no predictive value for breastfed babies.

  10. Phantom Scribbler Says:

    Emailing you with a link from Contemporary Pediatrics discussing picky eaters, including the study I mentioned above. Interesting that picky eating correlated with shyness and anxiety. That’s my little guy, all right.

  11. Nancy Says:

    I had the same two kids – one who is almost 16 and will still try just about anything (accidentally ordered raw sardines in Spain and ATE them) and the other who had what we called a “white food diet” for many years – white rice, plain yogurt, bread, etc. She decided to become vegan at the age of 12 (we were already vegetarian) and continually amazes me with what she will eat now. Just keep trying and don’t sweat it.

  12. Andrea Says:

    I’m convinced it has nothing to do with what parents do or don’t do. I’ve watched some of my friends struggle with picky eaters for no reason at all, and others end up with easy eaters doing exactly the same thing.
    I still am a picky eater, and I know myself well enough to know it has nothing to do with my parents at all. And I’m still a “healthy weight,” so all my junk food consuming doesn’t seem to be too terrible. And similar to some other posters–it’s texture more than taste. I can’t stand raw vegetables and a lot of raw fruits because the texture puts me off. The taste is fine; I can eat it when it’s cooked. So I don’t eat a lot of salads.
    With my daughter, though, it’s the opposite. She is so tiny, under the 1st percentile for weight, that I’ve been super-cautious not to let mealtimes become a battle of any kind. I want her to like food, and like eating. That to me is much more important right now than what she’s eating–it’s just too important to me that she eat anything. For some reason she doesn’t like toddler jarred food, so she eats a lot of the 8 month stuff. She has no trouble with cereal, and she likes bananas, so we eat a lot of those; but she wont’ eat any other raw fruits. Crackers and cheese adn buttered bread are good, but she won’t eat peanut butter.
    It’s a lot harder for my husband, I think; he does tend to get into the power struggle so I have to intervene a lot. If we try to force her to eat, she won’t eat anything at all, and that really would be a disaster. Sometimes she won’t eat anything now but if we try again in 20 minutes it all goes down without a struggle. Sometimes she won’t eat unless she has a little cup of juice with her meal. Sometimes I can’t figure it out and she ends up eating a few arrowroot cookies for dinner so something gets in her tummy. It’s frustrating, but I hope that as she gets better with her words she can tell me what is going on.
    The weird thing is, she always eats well and a lot of good stuff at the daycare (chimichangas! greek food! cheesy potatoes!) so we think we’re going to ask for some of their recipes to try at home….

  13. Elizabeth Says:

    Lots of good responses, which I’m going to respond to in a separate post. But I did want to reassure Mer that I’m not pissed off by everyone whose kids eat vegetables, just by those who are convinced that it’s due to their perfect parenting skills…

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