One in four Australian kids are overweight or obese. That’s 600,000 children aged from five to 17. A quarter of our kids. Those stats still shock me every time I write them or see them, despite talking about this regularly. I’m not telling you anything you haven’t heard before but we just don’t seem to be doing enough to turn those stats around. What we are feeding our kids is clearly a large part of this sad story. But it’s not just what we feed them, but how and when we feed them. We often talk on what to feed our kids, but we also need to give some thought to eating behaviours.
One of the behaviours clearly linked with eating more is speed of eating. A recent study even suggested that genetics may play a part in this! If you come from a family of eaters who wolf down dinner, it may not just be a learned response but one that runs in your genetic blueprint. The trouble is eating fast is not good for digestion and makes it much more likely that you will miss the cues to the brain that tell us to stop eating. The minute food hits the stomach chemical messengers travel in the bloodstream to the brain and start to turn off the appetite cues. Once enough is consumed these messengers ‘tell’ the brain all is well, food has been consumed and we feel satisfied with the meal. Bolt your meal down quickly and there is no time for this messaging and half an hour later you feel overfull and uncomfortable. Yet what do we so often do when we are feeding our kids?
In the playground I hear frequent reports that the kids get only 10 minutes to eat their lunch before they head off to play. Now of course it is crucial that the kids run around during break times, but by not allowing sufficient time to eat, all that happens is some kids don’t eat enough and others wolf their lunch box down without any consciousness as to how much they need to eat to feel satisfied. One of my sons frequently comes home with an uneaten sandwich. He says he didn’t have time to eat it when I question him. The result is he is then so hungry he can’t wait until dinnertime to eat … he snacks on something after school, stealing something from the pantry if I don’t give him enough, and then I struggle to get him to eat dinner because he’s then not hungry. Does that cycle sound familiar? I’m trying to enforce the importance of eating his whole lunch so that he is not starving after school, but unless the school reinforces this I’m fighting a losing battle.
What about at the dinner table? How often have you found yourself hurrying the kids because dinner feels like another chore to get through in the evening and you want it all over and done with? We rush from one thing to the next and it may seem overly indulgent to sit down and linger over dinner when there are other things to be done. Or you are just desperate to have it all over with so you can finally sit down at the end of the day and watch your favourite TV show. With my adult clients this is one of the exercises I give them. They have to sit at the table and take at least 20 minutes to eat their evening meal. Yet we encourage our kids to rush. What would happen if rather than just focusing on what we give them, we also start teaching good eating behaviours?
I’m trying to enforce the importance of eating his whole lunch so that he is not starving after school ...
Mindful eating is my suggestion to get this conversation started. You needn’t do this at every meal. I, like most of you, am often rushing through my day and don't give the evening meal with my kids the time it deserves. But how about we all try to slow down that part of the day? Teaching our kids to be mindful about the way they eat. Talk to your kids about the way food looks, smells and tastes so they appreciate their food. Talk to them about nutritional aspects of the food so they start to learn how food impacts on their bodies and minds. And encourage them to eat slowly. That doesn’t mean distractedly, or playing with their food as kids are prone to do, especially if they are not all that hungry, but to eat in a mindful way. This is where sitting together as a family really helps, as nothing works better than role modeling when it comes to learning behaviours. Maybe if we can keep our kids in touch with their internal cues to eat, and help them recognise when they should stop eating, and combine this with putting the right foods on their plates this will go some way towards turning those frightening statistics around. Food should be an enjoyable, pleasurable and fun part of life, not a race to the end of the day.