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.