I was recently called out for not being a "fun" mom because I wouldn't buy artificially colored "fun" junk food for my son. Should I worry that my son would feel left out or "not normal" compared to his peers because he was encouraged to eat carrots over cheese curls, or was I doing the right thing by encouraging healthy behaviors at a very young age?
Don't get me wrong, I appreciate that a part of childhood involves looking forward to the ice cream man and enjoying birthday cake at a party, but based on what I've seen just in my own patients, I fear that these treats during "special times" are becoming more of an "all the time" type of thing. Every parent wants their son or daughter to leave the nest as an independent and confident young adult.
We strive to teach manners, independence and kindness to our children but we often times fail to teach something just as important -- the value of exercise and healthy eating. The majority of your child's attitudes about food and nutrition, they're desire to be physically active and even their weight will come directly from their parent's.
Here are eight things about you that will most likely be passed down to your children.
You've got a weight problem
While part of your child's risk for obesity, and even how picky they might be about trying certain foods may be caused by genetic factors, the bulk of your child's predisposition to be overweight may actually be determined by your weight. That's right, if you're overweight or obese, your child's chances of following the same fate are between 25 to 50 percent. What about your child's other parent? If he or she is also overweight, the chances just shot up to 75 percent. Here's another interesting fact -- this prediction about baby's weight -- it's assessed the second he or she comes screaming into the world.
A 2012 study found that a simple formula could predict a baby's propensity to become obese and noted in the study that based on longitudinal cohort data, that 20 percent of children predicted to have the highest risk at birth make up 80 percent of obese children. The calculation is based on five factors including birth weight, the body mass index of the parents, the number of people in the household, the mother's professional status and whether she smoked during pregnancy.
Another study found that mom's weight both before and during pregnancy had a significant impact on baby's risk of obesity decades down the road. Further, the more weight mom weighed, the higher the risk for her child. This issue is not just about weight, it's about all the other factors that follow including self-esteem issues, and an increased risk of certain chronic conditions. In fact, one study found that obese adolescents risk for premature death in adulthood was the same as people who smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day.
You use food to reward or withhold on a regular basis
Have you ever caught yourself saying this: "If you behave while we're at the store we'll get (insert fast-food choice here) after"? If, as a parent, you've ever been anywhere close to uttering anything close to that statement (and frankly, who hasn't?), you've just used food as a reward. Using food to reward a very small child may set him up for a whole host of confusing concepts about eating. Unfortunately, the concept of food as reward can be further exemplified as your child enters into school as well.
A 2014 study found that junk food and sugary drinks are often used as rewards for reading or doing well in school. That means that you, as parent, should shape their views before they enter their schooling years. Studies have also shown that children whose parents restricted "palatable" foods on a regular basis were more likely to want the restricted food even more. So, the opposite is true as well -- if you communicate to your child that they can never have a cookie, your child will want that cookie even more and will most likely overindulge in the cookie once he has the opportunity away from you. A better approach according to one study involves leading by example and providing an environment where healthy eating is prevalent amongst all family members. That's means mom and dad, too!
In your home, junk food is its own food group
A 2014 study suggested that it wasn't actually the vast presence of fast food establishments that was to blame for the pediatric obesity epidemic but rather overall bad habits that originated in the home. Homes that followed a "Western diet" defined in the study as having a prevalence of sugared sweetened beverages, salty snacks, high-fat sandwiches, candy and desserts were more likely to have obese or overweight kids with poor dietary habits.
The desire for junk food may actually be affected before birth as well. A 2013 animal study found that pregnant mothers who consumed junk foods, particularly fast food, actually altered the opiate signaling pathways in the brains of their offspring, making their baby's more likely to crave foods high in fat and sugar.
You're a couch potato
A 2013 study found that kids whose moms encouraged them to exercise and eat well (and modeled these behaviors in themselves) were more likely to engage in physical activity and adhere to healthy eating habits. That means more movement, mom and dad, and less couch time! In addition to keeping kids sedentary, spending too much time on the couch as a family exposes your little one to more commercials that promote unhealthy foods, a risk factor for childhood obesity. Guess what? It also makes you, the parent more likely to purchase and keep junk food in the house as well!
Limiting overall "screen time" in young children is also critical and has been shown to reduce the risk for obesity and chronic conditions. Finally, if you're thinking about letting your little one have a TV in his or her bedroom, think again! A 2012 study found that children having a TV in their room were more likely to have a higher waist circumference.
You're labeling your child as "picky"
Have you ever told another parent that your child is a picky eater? Simply labeling your child as picky could cause them to turn away from fruits and vegetables according to one study. The study showed that moms who labeled their child as "picky" had children who were less likely to try various types of produce and were actually less likely to eat fruits and vegetables themselves.
You think breakfast is for sissies
Habitual breakfast in children is associated with higher academic performance, a reduced risk for obesity and an increased intake of vitamins and minerals. A 2013 study found that having poor breakfast habits as a child actually predicted the risk of metabolic syndrome as an adult. Are you getting the message here, moms and dads? If you're skipping breakfast, change your habits and set a good example for your child about the importance of the most important meal of the day.
There's no mealtime routine in your family
Many studies have found an association between family routines and a decreased risk of obesity. The "anything goes" attitude when it comes to dinner time can therefore be detrimental. Eating as a family unit has been linked with increased fruit and vegetable consumption and lower intakes of soft drink consumption. Further, adolescents who experience family meals often have a better diet as they head into adulthood.
Parents, it's your job to help shape the taste buds, views about food and weight for life. That doesn't mean your kid should never have a cookie. It just means that these foods shouldn't be the norm. Teach your kids about which foods make them strong and which foods make them weak by using words and phrases they'll understand such as "This salad will help you grow tall," or "This apple makes mommy's brain super strong."
Most importantly, if your child already has a weight problem or less-than-perfect eating habits, it's not too late to help him or her change. The step is recognizing the problem (few parents actually do) and working together with your child to change behavior. I'm happy to keep my "non-fun" mom status if that means that I can help my son be a healthy eater and maintain a normal weight throughout his life. One day he'll pass the same habits down to his kids and perhaps then he'll realize just how "fun" being healthy, staying fit and avoiding sickness can really be. Be the fun parent. Your kids will thank you one day.
Elizabeth Bedell contributed to this story.