I remember sitting at a friend’s dinner table as a kid, being served a plate of food that I didn’t choose for myself. It was obvious I was expected to clear my plate, even if I was full. This was in stark contrast to the rules in my house where the dishes were put on the table family-style and everyone served themselves.
At our dinner table, my kids help themselves. I prefer it this way because I’m not overly invested in whether or not they eat every single green bean on their plates. This is how they learn self-regulation. It's also how I keep my sanity. It would appear to be a good method, too.
According to a recent study out of Concordia University in Montreal, it looks as though I'm doing something right when it comes to avoiding childhood obesity. The numbers are overwhelming: Statistics Canada says that out of 1.6 million kids between ages five to 17, approximately 31 percent are overweight or obese.
The cause of obesity isn't always crystal-clear for certain kids, but we do know poverty plays a large role. Genetic and environmental factors are another variable. Researchers from Concordia, however, found that parenting choices increase the risk of childhood obesity, as well.
They divided parents into four groups:
Authoritative—both responsive and demanding. They are the ones who have expectations but don’t micromanage everything their kids are eating through discipline or rewards.
Authoritarian—not responsive but demanding. These parents think they know better and force their kids to eat certain foods, despite protests. I prefer the term "responsive"for this kind of parent.
Permissive—responsive but not demanding. These parents let their kids eat whatever they want.
Negligent—neither responsive nor demanding. The kids are on their own when it comes to food.
The study found that kids with authoritarian/non-responsive parents were 35 to 41 percent more likely to be obese than kids of authoritative/responsive parents. But at preschool-age, poverty erased this distinction and younger kids who lived below the poverty line (as defined by Statistics Canada) had a 20 percent increased chance of being obese, regardless of parenting style.
Researchers speculate that self-regulation is at the heart of their disparate findings. Kids of authoritarian parents don’t get a chance to learn what makes them hungry and what makes them full. They don’t learn how different foods affect their energy levels because they aren’t given a chance to make mistakes, and they may overindulge because of it. Babies are born with the knowledge of how much to eat and when. It’s the parents who overrule their innate knowledge later on.
When I was researching how to deal with picky eaters for my book, Whining and Dining: Mealtime for Picky Eaters and the Families Who Love Them, I was struck by expert Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibilities. My mantra then became: A parent is responsible for stocking the house with healthy food and making the meals while the kids' responsibilities are to choose how much to eat, if at all.
Or as it says on the Ellyn Satter Foundation website: "The parent is responsible for what, when, where. The child is responsible for how much and whether."
What does this look like exactly? It means the food is served family-style–every component of the meal is put on a serving platter and the kids serve themselves. Some nights they load up on veggies and starch, some nights it’s all protein. However, I don’t worry because, while some days they may not eat a balanced meal, they're learning the larger lesson of how to feed themselves and know what feels good in their body. They're listening to their own cues.
The roots of childhood obesity are multifaceted and the strategies to deal with it are equally complex. As a society we have to look at income inequality and how that affects families’ health, alongside educating parents on how they can teach their kids to lead healthy lives.