Don’t Snatch the Food out of Your Child’s Mouth!

I just read a real­ly dis­turb­ing arti­cle on Peg­gy Orenstein’s Web site. In Fear of Fat­ness, Oren­stein talks about the bias that even young chil­dren have against fat peo­ple, and the trou­bles that fat girls and their par­ents face. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly hor­ri­fied by the plight of one moth­er, who was so frus­trat­ed by her 5-year-old daughter’s fat­ness that she admits that she “fights the urge just to snatch the food out of the child’s mouth.” This is an unnat­ur­al prob­lem.

No moth­er in nature tries to pro­tect her off­spring by snatch­ing food out of its mouth. This unnat­ur­al prob­lem results from the unnat­ur­al diet that is stan­dard in the Unit­ed States. Moth­ers are sup­posed to feed and nur­ture their chil­dren. Why are Amer­i­can moth­ers strug­gling to lim­it their children’s por­tions?

If the child were being fed the kinds of food that nat­u­ral­ly slim pop­u­la­tions eat, then the weight prob­lem and the strug­gle for por­tion con­trol would sim­ply van­ish. The child would also avoid ear­ly puber­ty and have a low risk of breast can­cer in adult­hood.

Oren­stein men­tions that the par­ents turned to the child’s pedi­a­tri­cian for dietary advice. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, med­ical doc­tors typ­i­cal­ly know lit­tle about nutri­tion. Back in 1963, the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion report­ed that doc­tors weren’t learn­ing enough about nutri­tion and dietet­ics in med­ical school. A few years lat­er, their fol­low-up report showed that noth­ing had changed. Peri­od­i­cal­ly, some oth­er expert pan­el stud­ies the prob­lem and comes up with exact­ly the same con­clu­sions: our doc­tors are not being ade­quate­ly trained in nutri­tion and dietet­ics. Thus, it’s not sur­pris­ing that the child’s pedi­a­tri­cian has giv­en the fam­i­ly hor­ri­ble advice that is cor­rod­ing the moth­er-child rela­tion­ship.

The pedi­a­tri­cian has been work­ing with the fam­i­ly to con­trol the child’s por­tions. No ani­mal in nature con­trols its weight by eat­ing less than it wants to eat. Nor does any ani­mal force itself to go to step aer­o­bics class. Wild ani­mals rely on their appetite to reg­u­late their weight. Appetite works well for reg­u­lat­ing weight as long as the crea­ture is eat­ing the kind of food that is appro­pri­ate for its species. We have an epi­dem­ic of obe­si­ty in peo­ple in the Unit­ed States because the stan­dard Amer­i­can diet is far too dense in calo­ries. It has too much fat and not enough fiber. It over­feeds us before it sat­is­fies our appetite. When peo­ple try to “cor­rect” this prob­lem by lim­it­ing their por­tions, they end up even more unsat­is­fied. They end up strug­gling against a pri­mal urge, and the pri­mal urge usu­al­ly wins in the end. When par­ents end up need­less­ly strug­gling against their children’s pri­mal urges, their rela­tion­ship with the child will suf­fer.

How can we tell what kind of diet is appro­pri­ate for human beings? We can rely on sev­er­al kinds of evi­dence. First, we can use the same approach that sci­en­tists use to fig­ure out what kind of diet a dinosaur ate. They fig­ure that out by com­par­ing their teeth to those of mod­ern-day ani­mals. If you look at human teeth, you’ll see that they look almost exact­ly like the teeth of chim­panzees. Chimps are clas­si­fied as fruit-eaters, but they also eat a lot of leaves. So our teeth sug­gest that we should be eat­ing a diet with a heavy empha­sis on fruit and veg­eta­bles. Although chim­panzees do some­times hunt and eat meat, they actu­al­ly eat less meat than prac­ti­cal­ly any human pop­u­la­tion.

Chim­panzees and human beings are almost com­plete­ly alike genet­i­cal­ly. Some of the key dif­fer­ences involve genes that con­trol brain size and body hair. One inter­est­ing dif­fer­ence is in the gene for the enzyme that digests starch. Chimps have one copy, where­as humans have sev­er­al copies. In oth­er words, our genes tell us that human beings are spe­cial­ly adapt­ed to a starchy diet. It’s one of the rea­sons why human beings are among the world’s elite long-dis­tance run­ners.

Sev­er­al dif­fer­ent kinds of sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies have shown that human beings thrive on a diet of unre­fined starch­es and veg­eta­bles and fruit. Peo­ple who switch to that kind of diet can solve their weight prob­lems auto­mat­i­cal­ly. They can also pre­vent or cure many of the chron­ic degen­er­a­tive dis­eases that are com­mon in the Unit­ed States but rare else­where.

As I explain in detail here, a high-fiber, low-fat diet works on both sides of the weight equa­tion. Peo­ple end up eat­ing few­er calo­ries and burn­ing more calo­ries. In oth­er words, a starchy diet is slim­ming, while a fat­ty diet is fat­ten­ing. A low-fat, plant-based diet also helps to delay puber­ty.

Of course, if a fam­i­ly were to feed a child the low-fat, plant-based diet that would solve her weight prob­lem, they would be bom­bard­ed with crit­i­cism from peo­ple who ask, “But where will she get her pro­tein? Where will she get her cal­ci­um?” In response, the par­ents could ask, “Well, where do you think a goril­la gets its pro­tein and its cal­ci­um?”

Goril­las don’t hunt. They don’t fish. They don’t milk cows or gath­er eggs. They get 99.9% of their food from veg­eta­bles, fruit, and a few nuts. Yet those foods pro­vide enough pro­tein and cal­ci­um to enable a sil­ver­back male goril­la to grow to be 500 pounds and become 10 times as strong as a man.

It makes sense for par­ents to rely on a pedi­a­tri­cian for med­ical care for their chil­dren. But for nutri­tion­al advice, par­ents should turn to some­one who has been trained in nutri­tion and dietet­ics. A lot of peo­ple claim to be “nutri­tion­ists,” but not all of them have real train­ing in the sci­ence and prac­tice of nutri­tion and dietet­ics. When I had a health prob­lem that was poten­tial­ly food relat­ed, I got advice from a reg­is­tered dietit­ian. An RD has at least a bachelor’s degree in nutri­tion, has com­plet­ed a hands-on train­ing pro­gram in dietet­ics, and has passed a nation­al exam­i­na­tion. To keep their reg­is­tra­tion, they have to pur­sue con­tin­u­ing pro­fes­sion­al edu­ca­tion.

The Amer­i­can Dietet­ic Asso­ci­a­tion and the Dieti­tians of Cana­da have issued a posi­tion paper that argues that a well-planned veg­e­tar­i­an or veg­an diet is appro­pri­ate for all stages of the life cycle and pro­vides cer­tain advan­tages. If your child has a weight prob­lem, or any prob­lem that might be diet-relat­ed, it makes sense to talk to a reg­is­tered dietit­ian about a plant-based diet.

The appetite for food is not the only pri­mal urge that is cre­at­ing con­flicts between Amer­i­can chil­dren and their par­ents. Peg­gy Oren­stein has point­ed out in arti­cles and books that girls are being urged to be inap­pro­pri­ate­ly “sexy” at ear­li­er and ear­li­er ages. This trend is bad enough. What’s worse is that girls’ bod­ies are becom­ing sex­u­al­ly mature at inap­pro­pri­ate­ly ear­ly ages. Thus, girls are being plagued by pow­er­ful pri­mal urges long before they are emo­tion­al­ly mature. If you think that the din­ner table wars are ugly, just wait for pre­ma­ture puber­ty. The good news is that the same kind of diet that ends the strug­gle over food por­tion size can also post­pone the child’s puber­ty to its nat­ur­al age.

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