Top | Health+Food

Eating well as a family

(article, Catherine Bennett Dunster)

[%adInjectionSettings noInject=true][%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] 

p(blue). Editor's note: Catherine Bennett Dunster wrote the Health+Food column from June 2007 to April 2008.

“I'm concerned that my 11-year-old son is overweight as he still looks like he has a lot of baby fat. He is pretty active and usually would rather be riding bikes or shooting hoops than sitting in front of the TV. Still, would you recommend putting him on a diet to help him lose weight?” 


h1.Are we putting too much emphasis on obesity? 

A recent debate between Kelly Brownell, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, and Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado and author of The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to your Health, took place in the Los Angeles Times. Please read it and weigh in with your opinion in the comments section, below. I’d love to hear where your loyalties lie on this issue.


We’re constantly reminded that many Americans are gaining too much weight, and unfortunately, children have not been spared this trend. More children are gaining weight, and doing it at a much quicker pace than in past decades. The CDC’s website furnishes current numbers on prevalence and trends; the numbers are startling.

A complex web of factors contributes to this apparent crisis, but the plainest way to summarize it is to say that the modern American way of life is lethal: Sedentary lifestyles are common, and access to cheap, relatively tasty food is unlimited — tasty, that is, if you find that your palate is partial to prepackaged convenience foods and takeout from corporate chain joints.

On top of that, kids are steeped in commercials touting just those foods. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, adolescents soak up more than 7,600 commercials in a year for fast foods, candy, and sugary cereals. 

And we’ve all heard of the risks associated with being an overweight child. These children are more likely to develop such health problems as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and eating disorders, with a high probability of becoming an overweight adult. Overweight children are also more apt to be depressed and have low self-esteem. They can be the target of ridicule by other children and shaming by misguided (or just plain cruel) adults.  

In an effort to assist their children in avoiding these risks, lots of parents like you think about monitoring their children’s food intake and even contemplate restricting calories for weight loss. For a variety of reasons, I’d urge you to read on for options other than putting your son on a diet. (As always, if you have concerns beyond what is covered in this short article, check with your family physician or a registered dietitian.) 

[%image "promo-image" float=right width=400 caption="Modeling good eating for their children may be the best thing parents can do to fight obesity." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/lijlexmom"] 

At 11 years, your son’s body is continuing to grow and develop. Children grow at different rates and times and have their own very individual blueprints and growth patterns, thanks to their DNA. It is perfectly normal for adolescents to have a growth spurt in weight, followed by a catch-up growth in height later. That may very well be where your son is at right now, and restricting his calories at this time may interfere with his body’s natural process.

Though some (like Robert Jeffery, the director of the Obesity Prevention Center at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health) believe that body weight should be the focus of our efforts in screening kids for obesity and educating them about its dangers, others (such as Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, also at the University of Minnesota’s Obesity Prevention Center) steadfastly disagree. 

Neumark-Sztainer, who studies adolescent eating behaviors, believes that weight-focused efforts can serve as a breeding ground for eating disorders and that even those parents with the best of intentions run the risk of inadvertently encouraging unhealthful strategies for weight loss, such as using diet pills, purging, cigarette smoking, or adopting a severely restricted diet.

[%image family float=right width=350 caption="Exercise regularly with your children."] 
h4.As a parent, what can you do?

You are in an excellent position to help your child make good decisions by modeling healthful behavior. In fact, Neumark-Sztainer says that modeling such behavior is the single most important_ thing you can do. Here are a few suggestions on how to model healthful behaviors:

 Make it a family affair: Enlist the whole family in your quest to build healthy eating habits and active lives
 Stock the kitchen with an assortment of healthful foods and keep them easily accessible
 Eat a variety of foods, emphasizing whole foods
 Avoid fad diets
 Minimize junk foods
 Exercise regularly
 Plan and encourage active family excursions like bike rides, hiking, and swimming on a regular basis
 Help your child discover forms of physical activity he enjoys; perhaps he’d like to try martial arts or join the local soccer team
 Limit sedentary activities like watching TV and playing video games
 Eat together as a family as often as you can. Maybe breakfast is the best time for all of you to gather together routinely?
 Avoid making negative comments about your own body
 Focus on good health, not your child’s weight 
 Discuss and encourage healthful behaviors

Of course, with this approach, your entire family benefits.

One final word: While environmental influences such as diet and exercise matter, they are not alone in determining body weight. Our genes dictate body composition, and our brains play a key role in monitoring our programmed shape.

Though the science of weight regulation is complex, some researchers now think each of us has a preset body-weight range spanning about 30 pounds and that attempts to override what nature intended — like severely restricting food intake for weight loss — will kick physiological mechanisms into gear to thwart these efforts. 

The results? A slowed metabolism for energy conservation as the body attempts to regain weight. The opposite appears to be true, too: Those looking to put on weight by taking in more calories force their metabolisms to rev up and eating suddenly becomes unappetizing and burdensome.

p(bio). Catherine Bennett Dunster is a registered dietitian and a former instructor at Oregon Health and Science University. She lives with her husband and two children in Portland, Oregon. 

Please send your nutrition questions to*

promo-image, l

family, l

reference-image, l