The current rate of overweight and obese children in France is 15%, even higher than the adult rate of around 13%. So I do have to contest Mireille Guiliano’s Why French Women Don’t Get Fat, which should possibly be retitled, “Why Parisians are terrified of being a size 36+”. My beloved France is in a similar position to other countries and we are steadily getting heavier. Mon dieu!
While we all come in different shapes and sizes – tall, short, slender, strong, there’s no doubt that excessive weight can have a negative impact on our long-term health. The research also highlights the difficulty of successful weight loss. Only 10% of people who have followed a diet manage to keep the weight off in the longer term. That’s right, only 10%. Sadly, while it is relatively easy to pile the weight on, it is so much harder to lose it.
So, the first golden rule is prevention. We need strategies to stop gaining the weight in the first place and this particularly applies to children as an overweight child has a 75% risk of then becoming an overweight adult.
Respecting the Weight Curve
So, what should you do if you are concerned about your child’s weight? Well, first I’d check whether they have stayed on their weight/height growth curves. If they were a strapping 4.5 kg at birth (ouch!) and your other half tops 1.95 m, your children are likely to be taller and heavier than their peers. Your children are 100% unique with a perfect mix of both yours and your partner’s genes!
Be very, very aware too that in Paris, one of the second most popular topics of conversation (the first being one’s own weight) is comparing the weight of your children. You need to break convention and refuse to play the game. It’s an utterly ridiculous conversation to have. Instead you should be reassuring your children that their weight is fine and that there is little point, for example, comparing strong and shapely thighs to Parisian petite framed twig-like ones. After all, when push comes to shove, the twigs snap and strength endures!
I’m also going to add that children often gain weight before a growth spurt just before shooting up in height. It’s almost like they need to gain weight to fuel the growth! Growth spurts for girls tend to be around 8-13 years and for boys around 10-15 years. Again, sometimes a “watch and wait” approach for 6 months or so can help so you can be reassured that they are back on track.
Love Every Inch and Pound of Them
Still concerned? The second golden rule is to ensure your child knows how very much you love them exactly the way they are. Yes, I’m going to explain why I am bringing this up now. I have big eyes, acute hearing and a keen memory (I must have been a cross between an elephant and a bat in the previous life!) and believe me, I have heard some shocking comments in my time, along the lines of:
“When you get out of the shower and I see your rolls of fat it disgusts me” (said by a parent to their teenager)
“Why don’t you take more care of your appearance? Your friends are much prettier” (said by a parent to their 10 year-old child)
“If you were less fat, we’d be able to find nicer clothes for you to wear”……
Ouch! I don’t think I’d say these things to my worst enemy, let alone my child. I’d like to think that the parents were possibly unaware of the impact of their comments, but this is so not the way to support your child. Our children need to know that our love for them is completely unconditional and that even if we don’t necessarily like the way they behave (!), we will always have their backs and support them. The research indicates that pressurising a child about their weight often has very negative longer term consequences – disordered eating habits, excessive pressure to ‘look’ a certain way and a life time of yo-yo dieting.
Be a Role Model
Third rule then. As parents, we should be healthy eating ambassadors for our children, teaching them about a balanced diet and helping them to learn to regulate their food intake themselves. Being too restrictive tends to backfire horribly as once they can help themselves to food, they do not have a “stop” button if you’ve always been the one to ban or limit their food for them.
Finally, don’t ever mention weight or diets to your children. Don’t put them on a diet without professional guidance or involve them in dieting groups/discussions. Yes, I even know an 8-year-old child who was taken to a Weight Watchers meeting and the idiot team leader (excuse my French) weighed this poor child in front of everyone and pronounced her overweight. What she should have done is given the child a big hug and gently suggested to her mother that she take her home.
We should be giving our children positive messages, not a lifetime of guilt. “A healthy diet will keep you happy, fit and strong” and this is what we want for our children – strength and energy to ensure they will go on to do all the amazing things we know they are capable of.
So, with a drum roll, these are my top five tips to ensure your children’s diet is balanced and nutritious:
1. All for one, and one for all!
That’s right, the healthy eating rules apply to everyone. So, don’t even think about sneaking off for a handful of M&Ms or swigging a “full fat Coke” in front of them while your children gaze gloomily at their water. Back to the word we are no longer allowed to mention: “diets”.
I once heard this conversation between two siblings (I told you I had bat-like hearing!): “Mum said that you are on a diet, so I can have Nutella, but you can’t. You are obese.’’ Nice. Now that’s going to make for an “interesting” sibling relationship in the future. Trust me. Don’t go there. The rules apply to everyone, from the babies to the grandparents.
2. Variety is the spice of life!
Sadly, fussy children tend to grow up to be just as fussy, usually unhealthy and often overweight adults. And don’t torture yourself by insisting on making a different meal for every child or else you will be in the kitchen 24/7 and bitterly, bitterly resisting it. The deal is that the family eats the same meal. Yes, some meals might be more popular than others, but there should be a constant rotation of meat, fish, chicken and/or vegetable proteins with a variety of cereals and a rainbow selection of vegetables. As I always say to my children, “You don’t have to eat it, but there’s nothing else,” and then I calmly ignore their sulking while I enjoy my meal.
3. Vegetables are the good guys!
Poor vegetables. Since when did they become the bad guys? The evidence is undeniable. Vegetables give us superhero health and strength, so our children must learn to appreciate them. I’m against charts, “hiding vegetables” or bribing children to eat them as I strongly believe that eating vegetables should come as naturally as breathing.
I found telling my two adolescent daughters that eating vegetables reduced spots dramatically increased their intake. Vitamin C and beta-carotene are such skin-friendly nutrients! Equally, my son loves almost any vegetable roasted – he’s been known to devour a head of roasted broccoli! So, experiment, try different vegetables, involve your children in growing/selecting vegetables and simply present them at every meal in a calm and zen-like manner!
4. Limit the snacking
Babies and young children may need smaller and more frequent meals, but school children (from about the age of four) do not need to be snacking constantly. The aim is three meals with a goûter or afternoon snack if necessary. The issue with constant snacking is: a) it does not fill your child up, b) snack foods don’t tend to be the healthiest food you can eat and c) your child and you can quickly lose track of how much food they’re eating.
5. Portion control
It’s a very, very sad fact of life that males need to eat more than females, something I remember through gritted teeth every time I put 20% more food on my husband’s plate than my own. And, it’s all to do with them having a greater muscle mass, nothing to do with intelligence! So, your sons will also need more food than your daughters and equally young children will need less food than their older siblings. It’s something to remember, as often family meals are doled out equally.
As a general guide, the protein and carbohydrate serving should be about the size of each of the individual palms. The good news is that vegetables are unlimited!
A final word about sugar portion control. The concern is added sugar, which the Food Health Organisation recommends should only make up about 5% of the daily energy intake because it adds unnecessary calories, doesn’t fill us up and rots our teeth! What does this mean in practical terms? Limit sweet desserts/cakes and biscuits to 2-3 times a week and have fruit or plain yoghurt instead. For a healthy goûter after school, I often suggest a peanut butter and banana sandwich made with whole grain bread.