Here’s the low-down on Goodnight’s take for guiding families in instilling healthy eating habits in their children from a young age. Our resident go-to health-fundi, Nicci Robertson, provides us with savvy facts about being mindful and engaging when it comes to fuelling the family. Nicci is the founder of the Re-Invent Company and author of the Re-Invent Wellness Coaching Methodology. She is a clinical nutritionist, master practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming and Psycho-neuro immunology.
PART 1: What does “healthy eating” really mean?
Typically, when a family or individual comes to my practice for the first time, nine out of ten honestly believe they eat well. The average person is well and truly fooled by clever packaging, because it’s tricky to navigate and understand the information presented on the nutrition label A simple rule for those who want to eat really well, is to forget about packing anything into the trolley that has a list of ingredients on the package. If it comes in a foil or plastic container with cardboard outer packaging, you won’t be eating well! Any food made in a factory almost always contains added sugars and saturated fats. Of course, there is the odd exception. But keep in mind that no matter how convincing the packaging looks, if you only have to “heat and serve”, chances are you really shouldn’t’t be eating it.
It feels that well-meaning families are set-up for failure. The average person believes they are too busy to cook wholesome, healthy meals for their family, yet complain that they are become progressively fatter. Coupled with the fact that there are so many mixed messages, miracle pills and fad diets, our value system continues to be severely distorted and focused on instant gratification.
The only way to lose fat and keep it off permanently is to reduce calorie intake moderately, while increasing the frequency and variety of those meals, as well as by increasing physical activity.
Those calories should be consumed as a combination of macro nutrients throughout the day in order to sustain optimal insulin levels. For those who are in a rut, the body literally needs to be re-trained to use the calories to repair and refuel rather than store.
A professional health practitioner’s perspective about patients who are “sitting with the problem”
Nutrition is simple, compliance is complicated. There are fundamental nutrition facts that are simple to share with those who are willing to make a worthwhile change in their lifestyles. However, there is also the family dynamic that needs to be considered, as well as the circumstances that influence whether or not the parent is willing to make those changes.
Getting educated by a nutritionist who can explain the basics and empower children and adults alike to make healthy choices is an invaluable tool. From knowing how to spot a fad and how to read a food label, parents will be able to make sound choices for their household’s well-being.
• It is imperative that children are never prescribed a diet, as it sets them up for a lifetime of food issues and self-image problems.
• Parents need to understand that their children will mimic their actions and adopt their value systems regarding food. It is the parents’ absolute responsibility to change their personal eating habits to ensure that proper nutrition is a priority if they are concerned about their children’s health in the long term.
• Making time to eat as a family, and preparing and cooking healthy meals together is central to building good relationships with food.
• Get honest and face reality about the household environment. . Is there unrelenting conflict, abuse and little positive feedback? This kind of negativity nurtures comfort-eating in both children and adults.
Children’s eating habits are an extension of lifestyleWhen a child has a health issue that is lifestyle related, uncompromised compliance and involvement from the parents will ensure that the situation changes No child is born with bad eating habits. Feeding is a survival mechanism but the meaning we attach to that mechanism will set us up with either a good relationship with food or a dependence akin to a drug addiction. If you want to know what is wrong with the child, take a look at what is happening in the home and at school.
Before the food discussion commences, there are a number of factors that should be considered.
Once considered to be the domain of adults, even young children may experience unprecedented levels of stress which influences not only their behavior, their relationships with their parents and peers, but also their self-esteem and the need to nurture with food.
Sources of stress are numerous and it is the responsibility of the parent to encourage communication, creative problem-solving and balance without criticism. If this cannot be managed by the parent, a therapist is essential.
The brain is designed to deal with stress for no more than thirty seconds on average. It is not designed for long term stress, especially the kind where you feel like you have no control.
Stress damages memory, motor skills, executive function and your immune response. When the long term repercussions are measured, unrelenting stress such as the type of stress that exists in an abusive, critical or otherwise unhappy family environment actually causes the brain to physically shrink. The stress a child experiences at home will affect their performance at school, and vice versa.
Stress creeps into the food domain when it disrupts sleep patterns and the onset of depression. When we are exhausted we crave sugary and fatty foods, as well as caffeine to stay awake. I call this “pseudo-energy” as it has nothing to do with real vitality, but is rather an energy borne of adrenal overload. The resulting low serotonin levels associated with anxiety and depression also stimulate the survival response, or the quick sugar fix. When a person is so busy consuming high calorie, sugar laden foods in an emotionally turbulent state there is typically very little space or desire for healthy nutrition.
Sugar is a drug – like it or not.
We would like to believe that the hype around sugar is no more than drama-mongering by puritan foodies. Unfortunately, the puritan foods are right. People die from diseases every day that started (and ended) with their relationship to sugar. By sugar I am referring to high fructose corn syrup, which appears in just about every kind of sweetened convenience food, drink and confectionary. As well as good old table sugar. Of course there is a place for sugar, but when the average person has no idea about moderation it is good practice to abstain as much as possible.
Possibly the most interesting research regarding sugar is not only sugar’s effect on the endocrine system, but the effect on the brain. Researchers reported in the Neuroscience & Bio-behavioral Review Report in 2008 that “intermittent dietary sugar consumption alters extracellular dopamine in the brain, much in the way an addictive drug does. Moreover, when this intermittent sugar consumption ceases, dopamine levels are affected and signs of withdrawal can become evident. Not only can extracellular dopamine levels be affected but so too can the dopamine receptors themselves.” The sugar addicts and chocoholics were right!
But what would a childhood be without the occasional treat?
This is really not as challenging as it seems. Again, does the parent have self-control or do they binge on chocolates while veg’ing out in front of the TV? The central message begs the question: Where are the role models?
There is definitely room for sweets, cakes and chocolates in a healthy diet, providing it is not a daily occurrence, but something that happens infrequently.
The concept of quality rather than quantity is another point to consider. If you are going to eat something special and out of the ordinary, make it worthwhile. Value for money is not always about getting a whole heap of food at a good price, but rather paying a bit more and getting something exceptional. This is a great value to teach children, and does not only relate to food.
It is a known fact that when parents take the time to prepare nutritionally balanced meals from scratch and eat those meals as a family, the prevalence of obesity within the family diminishes notably. If you can manage just one thing in the interest of your child’s health, freshly prepared and balanced meals should be it.
Furthermore, meals should be eaten slowly, with enjoyment and mindfulness, while sitting down. Meal times should be a time to talk with your children and show an interest in what they did during the day. This is not a time for debates and arguments. A healthy, nutritious dessert should include nothing more than a piece of fresh fruit.
Snacking is healthy. Humans should eat every two to three hours, providing the snacks are whole foods and preferably contain a form of protein. Stock your fridge with chopped up vegetables, fresh fruit, low fat dairy and whole grain crackers so that healthy choices are always on hand, rather than cookies and preservative-laden snack foods. There is nothing wrong with snacking on a wholesome vegetable soup any time of the day, especially if your kids don’t enjoy fresh vegetables. Try to avoid instant soups, as these are full of flour and sodium.
What you eat for breakfast sets up your blood sugar and therefore your self-control for the next twelve hours. Always start the day with protein, low GI carbs and healthy fats. If you don’t have time or simply can’t stomach large breakies, there are plenty of great meal replacement shakes. However there is also a lot of junk masquerading as health food, so do your homework.
There are numerous interventions we can adopt to slowly change our attitude towards food. None will take permanent hold until we address the underlying issues mentioned earlier. Perhaps the greatest tool is simply having an open mind. Knowing that we have choices and really want to give our children the best possible chance at a life, free from serious health concerns, is very liberating.
PART 3: A sustainable healthy-eating lifestyle
The previous two articles looked at reasons why children fall into bad eating habits. These reasons included mimicking parents’ behaviors and habits, as well as stressful home environments and sugar addictions.
Parenting styles are far more advanced than the “Eat your dinner or there will be no dessert!” ultimatums that were set in past generations. Encouraging children and adults alike to listen to their bodies to distinguish their food preferences is very useful in promoting mindful eating in the family. As a side note, the days of dessert should be limited to no more than once or twice per week.
Limited choices help children to understand and value boundaries. When children are not given any choice, or alternatively when they are given free reign, they experience stress. Developing an unhealthy relationship with food often begins with feeling that we have no choice in the matter. When a child does not want to eat a particular food, give him the autonomy to choose something else, providing it is healthy. Again, no child is going to starve themselves, eventually they will eat.
I once met a woman who fed her daughter muffins for breakfast because she believed that muffins were “healthy”. I asked her if she would consider feeding her already overweight daughter cake for breakfast. Mortified, she said that cake was fattening and unhealthy. I then told her to look up a recipe for carrot cake and carrot muffins. She came back a day later somewhat sheepish, admitting that there is little difference between the two. The point here is that we are easily mislead by packaging and marketing. Most foods that we believe to be a healthy option are far from it. This includes most breakfast cereals blatantly marketed as health foods.
Look for emotional eating cues
Bullying, poor grades and limited social skills and boredom tend to lead to either comfort eating or complete loss of appetite in children. Abuse in the home and post-traumatic are also emotional eating triggers. Therapy is important to help sort out these issues.
Battle of wills
Sheer force and coercion will seldom work in the long run. Your child will out-wit, out-smart and simply wear you out in the end. Keep your attitude towards food light-hearted, and with certain foods or meal times, you need to have a non-negotiable attitude. If take-outs and ready-made meals do not feature in your home, these will not provide leverage for negotiation. Eating should always be fun, sociable. The most important point to remember is that a parent should never mention dieting or that your child is overweight, even in passing, even if you think they’re out of earshot.
Control supply and demand
Sometimes we all feel like eating something different. Thinking creatively can be difficult when you have had a full day at the office and you run a household. The ugly truth is that your child’s health and wellbeing need to take precedence over everything else. Planning, delegation and preparation will take an enormous weight off your shoulders and keep meal times interesting for the whole family, especially if you get the children involved in whatever way possible.
Creativity keeps it fresh
If your kids won’t eat fruit and veggies but they will eat ice cream, make frozen fruit kebabs using pineapple chunks, bananas, grapes, and berries. If it does’t work, throw these in the blender with fat free milk as a smoothie or freeze the mixture into lollipop molds for a fun snack later.
Add extra vegetables to soups, stews, and sauces, grated or shredded to make them disappear. Keep fresh fruit and veggies washed and available as snacks. Add yogurt, nut butter, or humus for extra interest. If it is available at all times, the healthy snack has a better chance of being eaten.
Don’t insist that your kids clean their plates.
Help your children to realise that they can stop eating when they’ve had enough. When we learn to respond to feelings of fullness, we are less likely to overeat. If you are concerned about waste, dish up smaller portions and save the leftovers for the next day. Better yet, teach your children to give the food they don’t eat to homeless shelters and soup kitchens – this will help them understand more about the importance of not wasting than eating everything on ones’ plate.
Don’t make the mistake of believing that young children only like bland foods. Likes and dislikes begin forming in infancy; therefore exposure to a variety of tastes and textures is vital. If you have to make a rule, insist that everything should at least be tasted once. Don’t be disheartened if children are reluctant to try your new Asian-style cooking. Be patient, and re-introduce different flavours up to 9 times. They might have changed their minds about whether or not they like it by then!
Drinks can be the root of the problem
Fruit juice, sweetened carbonated drinks and especially energy drinks are loaded with sugar and very little else. Fruit juice not only adds empty calories, but rots teeth just like any other sugar containing beverage, even if it doesn’t’t contain added sugar. Allow your children the opportunity to get used to drinking good, purified water. And if juice is a staple in your home, try diluting 1 part juice to two parts water.
Always remember that food is not love. Food does not make bad situations better. Find other ways to reward and comfort. Rather try hugs, attention, creative problem-solving and positive feedback.
Nicci Robertson is the founder of the Re-Invent Company and author of the Re-Invent Wellness Coaching Methodology. She is a clinical nutritionist, master practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming and Psycho-neuro immunology, as well as 2005 Body for Life Grand Champion (South Africa). She is one of a handful of healthcare practitioners in South Africa who is First Line Therapy certified as well as a member of the Institute of Functional Medicine (USA). Nicci consults to a number of multinational companies regarding staff wellness, work life balance strategies, executive wellness coaching and stress management. She is a resident health expert on Health24.com and runs a private nutrition practice in Gauteng. Nicci can often be heard on Radio 702’s Early Breakfast and writes for a number of monthly publications. And is the resident nutritionist on SABC 3’s Expresso and Doctors Orders.