The non-diet approach for children.

In a time when there is a focus on reducing sugar, countering obesity and improving the long term health of the nation, it can be hard to know how to approach these topics with your family. On the one hand we want children to be aware of what is in food but we don’t want them to be obsessing over it or feeling they need to go on a diet.

Personally I think that teaching children about nutrition, food preparation, healthy behaviours and their bodies early on is really important and can be part of the solution that our society needs. So as a mum I do my best to educate my children on a daily basis.  Simple messages that we use are “There are no good of bad foods but some foods we eat less of as too much of them are helpful for our bodies”. We also talk about what is in a food and why it is good for us – often using “Funky Facts” such as the fibre in bread or the vitamin C in a kiwi. Top facts like this are things I find they store up and remember.  

We may talk about dental health or how out tummy feels if you eat too much of certain foods.  Both my older children (age 4 and 7 yrs) can associate with a time they have eaten sweet foods and felt unwell from it! I love talking to them about how their tummy feels and what do they feel it needs as well as what does it want!

I prefer to focus on these messages rather than focusing on weight/size/shape.  Being a dietitian who works in the eating disorder field I am well aware of the issues that can occur when there is too much of a focus on weight, shape, size and how your body looks.  Instead I like to focus on the enjoyment of food and on healthy behaviours such as being active, getting fresh sunlight, being outside and taking care of our teeth, hair, nails. 

Here is a little video of my 7 year old explaining her thoughts on food:

I’d love to hear your thoughts! 


8 thoughts on “The non-diet approach for children.”

  1. Anna Springett

    Thanks Priya. I’d be happy to share more if you think it might help others. What kind of thing would be helpful? In a nutshell, she became progressively more fussy very quickly as a toddler and has not, for most of her life since babyhood, eaten ANY fresh fruit and only the occasional small piece of broccoli under duress when it comes to fresh vegetables; we still remember the first time she ate broccoli willingly, she was about 5 perhaps. Apart from that, she has only eaten a tiny amount of baked beans; that’s the sum total of her veg intake for a decade (apart from the occasional grated pear in porridge etc that I have managed to get away with – although she because suspicious too so I have tried not to ‘trick’ her into easting veg/fruit too often for this reason…). We have some family ‘rules’ in place which started with her but apply to all so that it’s ‘just the way we do things’ in our house; e.g. everyone has to have a glass of juice with breakfast (girls’ juice is diluted with water). I know fruit juice is high sugar, but we prioritised the vitamins, and only get not from concentrate so at least she gets some fresh fruit-ish. Everyone also has to have some fruit with breakfast – she does not eat fresh but she will have a dried fruit roll (the childrens Bear brand). PLUS multi vits every morning. That way we have some peace of mind that whatever else she eats for the rest of the day, at least she has some vitamins in her.

    The article we read led us to change the way we do meal-times (evening meal, and also lunch at the weekend): for children a few simple ‘guidelines’ (a) you do not have to eat, (b) meal time is family time so we all sit together (most meals), and (c) you choose what you want from what is offered. For parents: (a) we choose what foods are offered, (b) we make sure there is always something that we know each person will like, (c) we offer fruit and yoghurt every day, and sweeter ‘treats’ sometimes for pudding at weekends. That’s kind of it. Sounds like nothing really on paper, but it helped us take the pressure of at mealtimes – it had gotten so stressful at times (‘please just try it!’, ‘you have to eat SOMETHING’, ‘eating veg will make your tummy better’, etc etc, plus stress and anger and frustration on all parts at various points). This has been in place for a few years now – so it was not an instant change in terms of her eating habits, but did change the atmosphere which is what I believe led to the changes below..

    In the past few weeks, she has, for the first time ever, tried a few new things… which is massive for us. It doesn’t matter if she says she does not like them – it is the willingness to try that is fantastic. It gives us something positive to celebrate. Even as I write I am tearing up – this has been the hardest journey and sometimes I forget it how bad it has been at times. Brighter thing ahead! xx

    Happy to chat sometimes if it would be useful xx

  2. Thank you Priya and ladies for this conversation. Really interesting and helpful. I welled up reading Clare’s story; it’s so hard being a parent sometimes, and we can be our own hardest critics. Priya I find your balanced straightforward approach really refreshing.

    We’ve had food and eating challenges with our middle daughter since birth. It’s been one of the trickiest aspects of family life for me. Breastfeeding was agony with her (I’d breastfed successfully with first child); I cried every feed for 6 months before giving up. The guilt and shame potential around this area is huge – I should have switched to formula earlier; I would have been a happier mother to both children. Every problem you can have with breastfeeding we had; one or both on medication constantly. That’s a whole story of its own… This same daughter then got chronically constipated within a week of going into solid foods and we had six years of severe challenges. She was on lactulose and senna twice a day from such an early age (and still is but we’re finally on top of the issues; she’s 10); sadly this meant her taste buds has liquid sugar every day since 6 months old. So she became a very very fussy eater. Which contributed further to get tummy issues. The first year of school brought me to my knees; I had to go in several times a week to sort her out, bring her home, shower her… it was awful.

    Throughout this time we have tried so many approaches (I didn’t know about dieticians and was never referred – we saw a paediatric consultant continance specialist). Someone sent us a link to article which was similar to what you say above; this transformed our approach. We’ve had so many years, angry tunes etc… but I am delighted to say that in the last few weeks she has tried some new foods which is almost miraculous. Feels like we’ve finally turned a corner. I honestly never believed we’d get here.

    Keep at it Clare. Hugs xx

    1. Anna you are amazing to have persisted with breastfeeding. I agree sometimes it is just not meant to be and formula is best. It is all about mum and baby being happy. I only kept going with baby 1 through sheer stubborness! Wow it sounds like you and your girl have had so many challenges. I’m so so sad to hear about her first year of school. My boy currently has lactose intolerance and I’m a little cautious about school dinners for him as he is quite easily affected by it.

      I am SO happy to hear about your recent triumph. Wow wow wow! Love to hear more. I’m actually doing a few talks on this topic soon so maybe you would be happy to share more that I can share with others?

  3. Lovely conversation … I took a similar approach with food is good for you because conversations. At Christmas and Easter I have always let my kids have full access to treats for 2-3 days then done a sweet handover where they went in a tin in the kitchen so I could at least see when they were eating them. There was the Christmas when my son ate all the jelly beans in one day and was sick but he always remembered it and this curbed his sweetie desires later on. And there was the day at the water park where they ate churros all day as we weren’t really paying attention and he was sick. They are much bigger now and they both got multiple Easter eggs 2weeks ago… they both have some left. The eldest is using it to fuel his gcse revision … Little and often. I sometimes used to talk about sugar highs and lows as my eldest did used to get a bit over excited with sugar and that helped him think about how he was feeling and what he was eating. The only limit I did set was I told my children fizzy drinks were for grown ups, in the same way alcohol was… they thought this till about age 7 when they found out. They are still only occasional fizzy drinks consumers though . I think it’s fine to talk about foods you can eat a lot of because your body needs lots of them and foods you eat less frequently because your body doesn’t need so much and your body will show you because you might feel sick, damage your teeth etc etc

    1. I love those examples Isla. It definitely helps them to learn themselves about these things, rather than us as the parent telling them when they have had enough. Thankyou so much for your comment.

  4. I find this a really difficult subject. I have 3 children. My eldest and youngest are very slim. Neither my husband or I am overweight. My middle son is overweight and struggled with his weight for most of his life. He has always been chunky and was ‘like a brick’ even as a baby. He was exclusively breastfed until 6 months so he had a good start.
    We have a good diet (though he eats man-size portions I don’t know how to stop that because he just comes back hungry) . His elder brother can eat ‘whatever he wants’ and buys himself the rubbish I don’t have in the house and actually my overweight child has a healthier diet. I try and talk to both about healthy eating. Because he has a tendency to put on weight I have not always dealt with it well. I’ve shouted at him in the past to stop eating when he’s been grazing (whereas I know it’s normal for kids to have hungry phases). I’ve felt stressed by the messages we are given as parents, like it’s my fault – I remember watching him try and climb a tree a couple of years ago and it broke my heart. His clothes didn’t fit well, he couldn’t keep up with the other kids due to his weight. I did a healthy kids programme with him and he had to keep a food diary. They couldn’t find anything to fault. I do worry about his future risks for heart disease and diabetes.
    I try and support him by making his lunch, we have low sugar cereals and skimmed milk or eggs for breakfast. No sugary drinks (that’s standard). If he needs to snack I try and encourage him with healthier alternatives like offer to make him a sandwich or homemade crumble (blackberries with oats and coconut and seeds sprinkled on the top – bit of stevia for sweetness).
    My overweight child is 12 years old and weighs 13 stone. He is 5ft 8. His feet are huge, his hands are big. He started a fitness class a year or so ago and loves it but the weight hasn’t shifted although. He looks ‘chunky and sturdy’ with a ‘layer on him’ . I have 2 voices in my head, one is he worried parent, the other says he will just naturally lose it in his teens. I do think there needs to be more research into why some kids are ‘overweight’. I am told there is no such thing as puppy fat but I am not convinced going by our experience. only time will tell whether, when my son gets his teen growth spurt he will ‘grow into’ his body.

    1. Hi Claire, thankyou for your story. It sounds like a very hard place to be in as a parent. I think one thing to highlight is that being overweight is not necessarily a predictor of disease risks. Plenty of people who are larger are healthier than those who are smaller. We cannot see what is going on inside of everyone’s bodies. The research we have on obesity shows a correlation with chronic diseases but that does not mean obesity is the cause there can be other factors at play. So I would encourage you to be kind to yourself. If you know you offer him a good diet (which you have said above) and he is active for a couple of hours a day then you are doing all you can right now. It may be he is a different build to the rest of the family. I would caution with restricting his food or making him feel he needs to diet as this can lead to more issues later on in life. Instead maybe relax a little and let him take the lead. Encourage him to eat when hungry, stop when full, make balanced food choices and be active.

      If you need any further help I can always offer a Skype session. Priya x

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