“Don’t Eat Your Heart Out,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 72
“Stop crying, Johnny, and I’ll give you a big dish of ice cream.”
“You kids get your rooms cleaned up, and then you can have some pie.”
“Now, Susie, if you’ll stop fussing and get your ‘jamies’ on, I’ll give you some cake before you go to bed.”
How many times have you heard such expressions? They are symptomatic of an interesting contemporary problem. They betray an emotional reward orientation to the consumption of food, a tendency to eat in response to feelings and habit rather than to physical need.
Emotions play a dominant role in food selection. And in most of us these emotional determinants are established in childhood by well-meaning parents whose only desire is to show love and concern in a rather traditional fashion. But that kind of love is killing us! The long-range detrimental effects of such food abuse are becoming increasingly evident to the student of diet-health relationships. We are literally digging our graves with our spoons.
One may find dietary deficiencies in groups of all economic levels, even those that have the financial capabilities to provide better fare.1 In most cases, minor deficiencies do not give rise to observable declines in health status or work efficiency. But significant dietary deficiencies, demonstrable especially among the underprivileged, may indeed give rise to clinically observable signs, such as anemia and shortness in stature.2
But the bane of the western gourmand’s diet is not malnutrition, but overeating. Obesity (loosely defined as weight exceeding the recommended standard for sex and frame size by 20 percent or more) is a risk factor in several leading diseases. Diabetes, coronary atherosclerotic heart disease, osteoarthritis, and gall bladder disease all occur more often in the obese than among individuals of normal weight.
Many obese people are acutely aware of these relationships, and for this reason, as well as for reasons of general appearance and feelings of well-being, have elected to try one of a variety of weight-reducing programs. But frequently these programs are downright dangerous. The effectiveness of practically all reducing programs, including those that are prescribed, falls somewhere in the range between poor and miserable. Their five-year success rate in the United States is almost zero.3 No programs have been successful that did not entail a permanent change in dietary and/or activity habits.
The 1973–74 Relief Society lessons contained excellent information on basic principles of proper nutrition. However, knowledge alone, albeit indispensable in planning a proper diet, has been found inadequate in significantly altering dietary habits. In general, we eat what we like, not what we know is good for us. And our likes and dislikes are usually emotionally founded and well-established long before we can make rational decisions about them.
When we finally do understand the principles of nutrition, we tend simply to add the more nutritious foods to our already existing diet, thereby increasing our caloric intake. For example, we may learn that spinach is good for us, but we’re not likely to give up cake. We may learn to eat carrots for the eyes, but we don’t trade in our candy. It seems quite clear that to effect a satisfactory change in eating habits, there must be a change in deep-seated, long-standing attitudes affecting what and how much is eaten. Such habits and attitudes seem changeable only with difficulty. In fact, there is some recent evidence that early-established eating habits may be resistant to any change at all.4
Where do we go from here? It’s obvious that some changes are desirable, not only to realize better nutrition but, more importantly, to reduce the incidence of obesity and its associated problems. Let’s take a look at some of the things we may be doing wrong as parents and what we might do to change them.
1. We use food as a reward. From the time our children are small we are inclined to make them feel happy when they are sad by administering a “spoonful of sugar” in some form. If Doug falls down and skins his knee, we make it better with bubble gum. If Marty’s heart is breaking because Daddy went to the store without him, we placate him with a popsicle. Children soon learn that feelings of discomfort or sadness can become happiness through eating. Such an early association between food and good feelings may well extend into adulthood as a self-reward habit involving a trip to the refrigerator every time a case of the blues arises. What the food-as-a-reward tradition lacks in quality it overcomes in simplicity. Most parents prefer the 30 seconds required to administer a candy mood-changer to the 15 minutes required to reward Johnny with a story about David and Goliath. Imagine the impact we might have on the lives of our children if we substituted rapture in the scriptures for contentment in cookies. Perhaps the child would even realize that there is more love involved in giving time than in giving substance. Or if time is short, a few moments of closeness and a few expressions of love might adequately attend the situation. Even a ten-cent balloon might be a healthier reward than a confectionery.
2. We use food as a punishment. When John doesn’t want to eat his dessert, his parents will probably be unconcerned. But if he balks at his broccoli, look out! Mom and Dad are likely to make such an issue of the matter that the mere sight of broccoli incites anger. Some parents will compound the problem by saying, “If you don’t finish your broccoli, you can’t have any pudding.” Then broccoli becomes the evil obstacle between John and that wonderful experience called dessert.
If you want your children to like carrots, don’t bully them into eating them. Why not try the more successful emotional approach used on television? Commercials on television associate foods with fun things like cartoons and toys. Why not develop some associations between good foods and happy, fun experiences like picnics and family home evenings? How about a pioneer dinner in the park featuring raw vegetables and fruits? Or let the little ones experiment by dipping vegetables in a variety of sauces and dressings in a fondue-style dinner.
3. We encourage snacking. To add to the conviviality of such occasions as watching television, reading, or socializing, we too often engage in snacking. And as an after-school ritual, the habit is probably firmly entrenched in most of our homes.
Children do get hungry between meals. But learning to live with that little bit of hunger, especially while yet young, may be healthier than eating at every urge. (Any Latter-day Saint knows that fasting becomes easier with practice.)
It would be best if we never developed the snack habit. If you don’t think you can accomplish that in your home, perhaps snacking could be shifted from cake and cookies to the less fattening fare of low-fat milk or fresh fruits. Of course, there is no guarantee that a well-established snack habit involving milk and fruit will not change for the worse when the child is on his own, but at least the youngster has been taught the proper principles.
Complete elimination of the well-embedded bedtime snack is also desirable, but if you can’t eliminate it, how about a glass of low-fat milk instead of a heaping plate of ice cream?
4. We eat opulently. A lavishly set table has become a symbol of success. “We always had more than we could eat at my home,” may be a braggart’s phrase, but that stuffed look is certainly testimony that it is not an empty boast.
“Waste not, want not” is a desirable ethic for frugal folk, but it might produce less obesity if it were applied at the time the plate was loaded up rather than at the time it is “cleaned up.” “Clean up your plate” is the prelude to dessert in so many homes that it’s no wonder a child feels he must eat till the food is gone, including what’s left in the serving bowls. Perhaps tables could be less sumptuously set with meals more carefully planned according to the basic food groups.
And when the food is gone, it’s gone. Some recent evidence suggests that less food will be consumed, and thus less need be prepared, if you can teach your children simply to eat more slowly. Is there really any sense in eating at each meal as though there was never going to be another one?
5. We serve too many desserts. I hesitate even to mention this last item. In many homes I’m sure it will be tantamount to heresy. But are desserts really necessary? In some homes they are so commonplace, they become ordinary and even a little dull. Reserving rich treats for special occasions would not only enhance the appreciation of both the treats and the special occasions, but would do much to eliminate obesity. If the dessert habit is too firmly entrenched, switch to fresh fruits. You may be surprised at how much your family will enjoy them.
The scriptures tell us that deathbed repentance is impossible. If we have a problem in our lives, we need to start as early as possible to resolve it, since repentance may take some time. And how much better it would be if we just never developed the problem in the first place. Poor eating habits, like all others, are hard to repent of, and prevention is infinitely more satisfactory than treatment. Therefore, start right now to try to correct your family’s bad eating habits:
Prepare less food.
Use more fruits and vegetables in your meals; cut down on fried and high-fat foods; serve desserts sparingly, using more fresh fruits.
As for snacks, particularly the highly processed varieties, a few days of standing firm against those pleadings for goodies might help extinguish that habit. Not having snack items around the house may reduce their consumption to almost zero.
Try to make meals a more leisurely and conversational experience.
Let’s help our children learn to eat the right amounts of the right foods for the right reasons.