Childhood obesity has become an epidemic in the United States. We field countless questions from parents on how they can get their kids to eat healthy foods and stay at a healthy weight. It has become clear that healthy food choices and behaviors have to come from the parents and trickle down to their children – poor food choices are often times a family issue, not just a child’s issue. We are happy to introduce our first guest blogger, Susan Thompson, PhD, who specializes in the psychology of food and overeating.
When I meet someone at a party and they ask, “What do you do?” what I say is that “I teach people how their brains keep them from losing weight.” It’s kind of a glib answer but it always piques people’s curiosity and inevitably I end up telling them more. I earned my Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from the University of Rochester. I’m a tenured psychology professor at Monroe Community College. And I’m the Founder & CEO of Bright Line Eating Solutions, a company dedicated to helping people lose all their excess weight and keep it off long-term.
I myself am a long-term weight-loss success story. Over eleven years ago I went from obese to slender, from a size 16 to a size 4, and the fact that I’ve maintained that weight loss for over a decade puts me, statistically, in the top 1% of all people who try to lose weight.
I did it by going to a 12-step program for food addiction and being taught about what I like to call “Bright Lines.” Bright Lines are clear boundaries that you just don’t cross. Non-smokers don’t smoke. That’s a Bright Line. Sober members of AA don’t drink, no matter what. That’s a Bright Line.
In the field of psychology we know that Bright Lines are very useful tools for bolstering willpower and achieving success.
Most people think that, since you have to eat to live, you can’t use Bright Lines for food.
But let’s get real. You don’t have to eat cupcakes to live. You don’t have to eat Happy Meals to live.
Bright Line Eating is based on the science of food addiction and the psychology of willpower. By using Bright Lines to structure our eating and employing scientifically proven tools to bolster our willpower, it’s possible to do what 108 million Americans are currently trying (and failing) to do—lose weight and keep it off.
The other day a friend of mine expressed that she’s really interested in Bright Line Eating and wants to move toward losing weight and getting healthier, but her family isn’t necessarily on board.
She knows that I have a husband and three young daughters, so she asked how I navigate providing food for my family.
What a great question.
First of all, I just want to say that raising healthy eaters is really challenging today, given our immersion in this toxic food culture. There’s no way around that.
Believe me, I wish there were.
Kids are going to be exposed to all manner of junk food, and they’re going to love it. We’re all fundamentally wired to prefer refined carbohydrates over whole grains, and to light up when we taste blissful combinations of sugar, flour, salt, and fat.
Perhaps if you live in a remote area, or in an enclave of enlightened eaters, you can raise your kids to eat nothing but whole, natural foods. But if you’re a part of mainstream society, that’s going to be pretty tough. Assuming that birthday parties, religious or other community events, and restaurants are a part of your life, your kids are going to be exposed to so-called “forbidden” foods, even if your house is free of them. Complete abstinence is not a realistic goal.
Furthermore, I believe that Bright Line Eating is a way of life we can choose for ourselves as adults, not a path we should require of kids. However, I just as firmly believe that I don’t have any hope of feeding my family well if I don’t feed myself well. The best thing I can be for my kids is not a short-order cook but a role model.
And I have found that I can be a role model of good eating habits whether my spouse or my kids are on board or not. It’s up to me. Once I change the food I put in my mouth, everything changes.
That said, here are the principles that we try to follow in our home when it comes to food.
- We eat meals together. Food is only eaten sitting down at the table. I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but the kids also get a sit-down snack both mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
- The parent who is preparing the meal decides what is being served. No short-order cooking to cater to individual tastes. When one of my kids whines “But I don’t LIKE (fill in the blank food),” I simply reply, “You don’t have to eat anything you don’t like.” And I mean it.
- When I cook I always try to provide a variety of foods. The rule of thumb is that I cook what I’m going to eat, plus some extra grain or starch for the kids. So for example, a typical dinner would consist of:
- A big salad
- Some kind of cooked vegetables (broccoli, corn on the cob, roasted carrots, steamed asparagus, sautéed baby bok choy, etc.),
- Some fresh fruit
- Something traditionally thought of as “protein,” whether that’s veggie burgers, tofu, beans, chicken, or some other meat or fish
- A big pot of grain or starch, such as whole-wheat spaghetti (with sauce and cheese), rice (sometimes we do white, sometimes brown), gnocchi, potatoes, sweet potatoes, home-baked potato or sweet-potato fries, quinoa, or whole-wheat bread
- Some real fat, including Earth Balance Buttery Spread (our version of butter), olive oil or salad dressing, and perhaps a dish of avocado (I’d happily supply a dish of nuts but one of my daughters is allergic)
Here’s the most important part: Once I have provided the meal and we’re all sitting down at the table, MY JOB ENDS. My job is to provide a variety of foods at regular meal times. My kids (and, of course my spouse) decide WHAT, HOW MUCH, and even WHETHER to eat from what’s provided. Pressuring people to eat (especially little people) isn’t helpful, and it doesn’t work. In fact, it backfires.
This means that I don’t comment on my kids’ selection of food, ask them to eat vegetables, tell them that they’re eating too much, or not enough, ask them to take a “no thank you bite,” or tell them they have to finish what they’ve put on their plate. If they eat nothing but white rice and Earth Balance Buttery Spread for dinner, so be it. If they eat nothing at all, so be it. They’ll make up for it at the next meal.
What I find is that my kids have learned that I’m really not going to pressure them about their eating, and this gives them the psychic space to sneak up on novel foods and try them at their own pace.
It also ensures that mealtimes are pleasant and there’s no arguing about food.
This approach, where the parent handles the WHAT, WHEN, AND HOW of providing food and the children are empowered to decide on the WHETHER and HOW MUCH to eat from what’s provided, was proposed by Ellyn Satter and is known as the “Division of Responsibility.” As a scientist, I love that it’s proven effective. As a mother, I love that it relieves me of the angst of worrying about my kids’ eating. Once I’ve provided the meal, my job ends.
But I’ve got to do my part. I’ll say it again. The most important thing about feeding kids is to lead by example. My daughters are fascinated by the way I eat. I believe that when they’re old enough, I’ll be able to teach them the reasons behind my choices and then they’ll be able to make decisions for themselves about how to nurture themselves with food.
Most importantly, I provide an example of what it looks like to prioritize eating well at meal times, and to leave food alone and live life in-between. What a great life skill to pass down!
Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D.
Lunchbox Photo Credit: Dee Speed