Schwartz was a major contributor to the new HBO documentary on the obesity epidemic, “The Weight of the Nation,” which premiered in D.C. this week and will air beginning May 14th.
In the first part of the interview, Schwartz discussed how the economically-motivated food industry works against parenting efforts to promote healthful eating. In the Q&A below, she describes which family choices can combat the big forces at play in the obesity epidemic and our children’s less-than-healthy instincts.
One of the interesting commonalities between the families featured in the documentary is that they seemed to let their children dictate certain circumstances: a TV in the bedroom, computer usage, whether to quit a sport, etc. Does that dynamic contribute to the obesity problem?
Yes, I think that dynamic does contribute to the problem. I have three children myself who are currently between 12 and 15. I feel like parents are given very mixed messages in our culture right now — we are criticized if we are too tough with our children, and we are criticized if we are too lenient. That magic middle ground is not so easy to find when you are faced with hundreds of child-rearing decisions every single week. We need to help parents find that middle ground and support them with specific ideas, not just vague and unhelpful expressions like, “everything in moderation.”
When it comes to food, the fear of “causing” an eating disorder has terrified many parents out of being strict about what they let their children eat. As a psychologist who treated eating disorders for a decade, I have spoken out about this and encourage parents to take back their rightful role as the family food policy makers.
I encourage parents to think about the food rules that make sense in their families and not get intimidated by people who think they are being mean to their children if they don’t take them out for fast food or let them drink soda.
We have rules in my family: no TV in the bedroom; no eating in front of the TV; and no eating anywhere but the kitchen and dining room (this is made easier by having only one TV and keeping it in a separate room). I also do not buy soda, sugared cereals, or packaged sweets. (As a side note, if you refuse to buy packaged cookies, brownies and cupcakes, an unintended consequence is that your children become outstanding bakers!)
One of our rules is “one dessert a day.” Dessert includes basically any food that provides calories but no meaningful nutrition — so that includes chips, French fries, cakes, candy, ice cream, etc. This way there is no food off limits, but the concept of moderation has a real, understandable definition, and my kids know what a moderate portion is of these foods and how to work them into their every day diet.
We have conversations like, “If I eat these potato chips, does that count as my dessert of the day?” (The answer is yes.) And, “Can I have both the French fries and ice cream that come with the kids meal at the restaurant?” (The answer is no.) And, “Can I substitute the French fries for a baked potato and still have the ice cream?” (The answer is yes.)
It’s not always obvious what the answer is, and sometimes my husband and I need to discuss it if we disagree, but having grown up with this rule, the kids pretty much handle it themselves now and it needs very little discussion.
I am a big believer in “real food.” We have dinner as a family as many nights as possible during the week and I work very hard to put a meal on the table that is nutritious and delicious. I am not always successful, and as the kids have gotten older they help out more. But we all understand that family meals are a priority in our house and we do our best to not sign up for activities that will interfere.
Regarding activities — that is a challenge — we have communicated to our children that physical activity is very important and my husband and I model that by taking time to be physically active regularly. We have encouraged our children to find a sport they like and stick with it.
Do you think “food rules” are a good idea? How far should a parent go in regulating an older child’s diet?