The Last Days of Diets

By Larissa Phillips

Some people just like to eat. Like me, for example. As far back as I can remember, I was the kid who wanted seconds, who yelled the loudest for ice cream, who asked for a third or fourth or fifth piece of bacon.

Fortunately, this didn't turn out to be an issue. Around the age of 12 I grew several inches, lost my baby fat, and have been a more or less normal weight ever since.

I was also very lucky: In the age of crash diets and skinny 1970s fashions, my lovely pediatrician waved aside my mother's mild concern and didn't even consider putting me on a diet. "She just has a sturdy build," I remember him saying. "Make sure she's playing sports. Get her a bike. She'll be fine."

Lucky me. Research has shown that diets don't work for adults or children. Yet it is amazing how many people are tempted to restrict their children's portions, whether or not a child is actually overweight.

It is true that the obesity epidemic has reached crisis proportions. A few years ago, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said that we are raising "the most overweight, obese generation of children in our history." But even as we deal with this ongoing crisis, we may need to rethink our prescriptions. In some states, children are receiving Body Mass Index "report cards," sent home by the public schools. Children as young as 7 are dieting. But all this focus on big bodies can have disastrous effects on young egos.

Besides, says Ellyn Satter, a registered dietician and therapist, and author of Your Child's Weight: Helping Not Harming (Kelcy Press, 2005), "Some children are just big. They naturally fall around the 85th percentile." After 40 years of counseling overweight children, Satter has some suggestions. One surprising aspect: her recommendations are the same for all families, whether or not a child is overweight. Healthy eating, it seems, is for everyone. Here are some of her tips:

  • Diets don't work. In Satter's experience, diets and food restrictions are more likely to backfire than succeed. "The children are so miserable," she says of kids on diets. "They're hungry; they feel singled out; they're ashamed. They get to be these little food sneaks."

  • Provide family meals and structured snacks. Instead of allowing kids to graze or putting them on a diet, offer three regular meals, with a structured snack two or three hours after each meal, even at bedtime if necessary! (These recommendations are for toddlers and older children; infants should be fed on demand.)

  • Put an end to short-order cooking. It is a normal practice these days to wait for a child to be hungry and then to cook whatever the child suggests. But, according to Satter, toddlers are not cognitively mature enough to make this decision. Instead, put out four or five items (grain, vegetable, meat and bread) at dinner, she suggests, then "let the child choose." Make sure one option is bread. "If all else fails," she adds, "they'll probably eat bread."

  • Don't cajole, bully, beg or threaten. According to Satter, the adult should decide "what" and "when"; and the child can decide "how much" and "whether." If your child is not eating vegetables, don't make it an issue. "Just keep putting them on the table and enjoying them," says Satter. "Eventually the children will come around and eat them. With some children it takes years, but they will get there eventually."

For more advice about raising children with good eating habits and "the bodies they were meant to have," check out Satter's Web site.