Fun, Food, Fellowship, and Fat?

One night when the Larimore children were preteens, the family decided to stop speeding down the expressway of life long enough to share dinner. Walt always enjoyed mealtimes with his family because it gave everyone the opportunity to visit and catch up with each other. His wife, Barb, had laid down the law: The family would share as many meals together as possible. Period!

On this evening Scott, their youngest, made an observation that froze everyone in mid-chew.

“Dad,” he began, “don’t you think we’re all getting a little bigger than we should?”

Barb blushed and Walt remembers his mouth dropping open. At that time in the Larimore family history, Scott was the one who most needed to lose some weight. Walt thought, isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black? But before he could say anything, Scott continued, “I think we could all stand to lose a bit of weight.”

Walt looked over at Barb. She smiled and then looked at Scott, once more busy with his plate. “Scott, I think you’ve brought up something important for us to talk about,” she said. Then she turned to Kate, “what do you think, honey?”

Kate shrugged her teenage shoulders. Walt looked down at his midriff, which had begun to show the middle-age sag so common in men his age.

“Well,” continued Barb, “let’s figure out what we need to do as a family. What do you all say?”

That night they began an important discussion about what they could do as a family about hurtling down the dangerous road of SuperSizing. They knew they needed to get off the road. They knew that their family lifestyle, left uncorrected, could become a recipe for disaster. So they decided to change, one step at a time, starting that night.

The Larimores knew that they weren’t exercising enough, that they ate more often than they should at fast-food restaurants, and that their diets contained an unhealthy amount of sugar and saturated fat. Moreover, they had stopped the habit of eating together as a family and had begun eating some meals in front of the television. They knew they needed to improve.

As a first step they chose as a family to keep a daily diary of what each family member ate. At the end of one month they had another family discussion. They discovered they had eaten only nine dinners together. All of them had often skipped breakfast and had consumed a surprisingly high number of soft drinks and unexpectedly large amount of snack food. Their meeting ended with a decision to do some fact-finding.

During the next two months they read books on improving family nutrition. Barb purchased a couple of cookbooks with health-oriented recipes, and each of them picked recipes he or she wanted to try. They learned the difference between “good” and “bad” fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. They learned about how a child’s nutritional needs differ from those of adults. They learned how to select snacks low in saturated fats, trans fats, and sugars.

As we’ve mentioned frequently, nutritional habits are not as easily taught as they are caught. Barb and Walt came to the sobering realization that they needed to demonstrate good nutrition before their children would practice it. They came to understand the necessity of good exercise and activity habits for their children, which meant they needed to do those activities with them.

Where Do I Start?

Maybe this idea of weight control as a family affair is new to you. If so, where do you start to make needed changes? What’s the best way to begin?

Know Your Current Habits

As of this moment, what kind of eating habits does your family have? How much do you exercise? It doesn’t hurt to monitor your family’s habits for a couple of weeks; use a notebook to write down exactly what happens under your roof. You might think that you guzzle only one soda a day-but keeping a journal or diary of you actual experience might open your eyes.

It’s great place to start. Make sure you know your real starting place.

Eat Together

Many recent studies insist that eating together as a family has substantial effects on the control of obesity. A Harvard Medical School study of sixteen thousand children found that those who ate dinner more often with their parents ate more nutritious food and fewer calories. Why?

First, the quantity and quality of food are easier to control when the family eats together. “Absence of family meals is associated with lower fruit and vegetable consumption as well as consumption of more fried food and carbonated beverages.” Said one medical journal.

Second, eating together has positive effects on human emotions. One study concluded that quality family time is linked to good mental health in kids. “Sharing daily meals is a unifying ritual that promotes adolescent mental health,” the study concluded. A study published in the American Psychological Society newsletter found that teenagers who ate with their families five times or more a week were less likely to do drugs or be depressed, were more motivated at school, and had better peer relationships. And a survey of National Merit scholars from the past twenty years found that, without exception, these students came from families who ate together three or more nights a week. Spending quality mealtimes together contributes to a child’s mental and emotional health.

So what stops us from eating together as a family? Two of the most common causes are parents working late and children involved in extracurricular activities; it may be 8pm or later before everyone gets home. Still, it’s worth it to insist on family eating times, despite whatever obstacles stand in our way. It’s certainly better to make health-promoting changes now than to suffer great regret a few years down the line.

The family meal may be a lost art, but it’s well worth recovering. We cannot urge you strongly enough to plan healthful meals and eat together as a family. Planning the week’s meals can help save you time and money, while sitting together at mealtimes helps children learn to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods.

We have one big word of caution here. While it is perhaps parental nature to try to dictate to a child what and how much he or she should eat, it is now known the parents who attempt to over-control their children’s eating actually add to the problem of obesity. Don’t forbid a food. If you tell a child she or he can never have a food, that food becomes more desirable. One 2002 study found that young girls with mothers who restricted their food choices tended to snack excessively and eat even when they weren’t hungry. Most foods, when consumed in moderation, can be part of a generally healthful diet. By allowing the occasional consumption of foods you consider “junk”, they become no big deal. In general, parents should be responsible for offering healthful foods, structured meals, and occasional snacks, while children should decide how much they eat.

When it comes to family eating, the National Institutes of Health offers a good summary: “Involve the whole family in building healthy eating habits. It benefits everyone and does not single out the child who is overweight.”

Grocery-Shop Together

As much as possible, go grocery shopping together as a family. You can have all the best-laid plans in the world, but if you bring home junk food, you’ll be setting up your family for dietary failure.

First, make a list of what you need. Most of the “impulse” buys we make tend to add fuel to the fire of childhood obesity. Begin the discipline of never letting your children talk you into buying anything not on the shopping list.

Second, don’t go shopping on an empty stomach. Everything looks good when your stomach is growling.

Third, stick to the perimeter of the store; don’t spend much time in the middle aisles. The most healthy food choices-like fruits and vegetables and dairy product-are usually arranged on the outside aisles, while the inside shelves generally get stocked with empty-calorie foods.

Fourth, skip buying soft drinks and high-fat/high calorie snack foods like chips, cookies, and candy. If children do not see these foods at home, they will be less likely to ask for them and you will not have to say no. Instead, choose healthy snack foods. Remember, if you fill your pantry with fatty snacks and sweet drinks, you’re going to have to say no a lot-and that can make forbidden foods seem the more desirable.

Exercise Together

The family that exercises together gets healthy together.

We know of one family that plays a game called Freeze Tag. They go outside in the fresh air two or three nights a week to play. The kid who is “it” must run around to catch and touch the other players to make them freeze, until they’re all standing still. The family made this outdoor game such fun that now the kids beg to play it. It’s a game that keeps you running, so you get great exercise, but it doesn’t feel like exercise because you’re playing the game as a family.

It’s important to make family activities fun, because you won’t stick with them if they’re not. Not far from metropolitan Orlando and Walt Disney World is something called the West Orange Trail, a former railroad track that has become a paved exercise path. It extends about nineteen miles on the north side of town. It’s wonderful to drive by the trail and see families on bikes or rollerblades or walking together, having a great time. In response to the obesity epidemic many communities around the country are creating similar kinds of trails, parks, and outdoor recreation facilities for families and individuals. Check with your parks and recreation services to find out what’s available in your area.

For those who like to run, many communities hold 5k and 10k runs, often accompanied by special kid runs of much shorter length. When kids see Mom or Dad training to run in a 5k or 10k, they often want to participate.

Many health clubs offer not just family memberships but special programs for the kids. So while the parents work out in their part of the club, the kids can run around doing other active things, playing hopscotch or jump rope or kickball or basketball with small hoops or climbing a rock wall.

The National Institutes of Health recommends, “Be active together as a family. Assign active chores such as making the beds, washing the car, or vacuuming. Plan active outings such as a trip to the zoo or a walk through a local park. Kids need a total of about sixty minutes of physical activity a day, but this does not have to be all at one time. Ten or even five minute bouts of activity throughout the day are just as good.”

Believe Together

Would it surprise you to learn that “trust in God” contributes to family health? More than sixteen hundred studies have shown that spiritual health is positively associated with physical, emotional, and relational health.

Furthermore, studies have shown that individuals who regularly attend a house of worship and who have a strong faith tend to have a better support group around them and therefore have less incidence of depression and mental anxiety. Because of this, they may be less susceptible to various kinds of emotional eating. In addition, strong social support has been shown to be helpful in adults who choose to improve their nutrition and lose weight.

Find Balance Together

As in most things, we must find balance in life. It doesn’t necessarily follow that if sixty minutes of exercise a day is good, then five hours is even better. It’s good for kids to get active and moving, but some families allow their children to get involved in far too many activities. Balance is key.

Many of us feel as though the more we do, the more meaning we bring to our lives. We think we’ll feel better about ourselves when we can say, “Look at me, I’m so busy; that means my life has meaning.” But it’s most definitely not good for your health.

Consider just one common downside to the unbalanced life. You keep such a hectic schedule that you have only ten minutes to inhale your meal before you must be off to your next activity. Something has to give somewhere, so you hit the drive-through at a local fast-food place instead of going home and sitting down to a balanced meal. And before you know it, you get on the scale and the numbers have jumped ten notches.

That’s not healthy. Not for you and not for your kids. Balance may not be easy to find, but it’s worth searching for. And your scale will thank you.

The Best Route To Health

The leadership and good example of parents and guardians really do provide the best route to curing the top health crisis facing the American family. With the cost of obesity in America at a staggering $99.2 billion annually (and rising), we have our work cut out for us.

Without question, childhood obesity presents an enormous challenge to the health of America and its kids. But when we meet that challenge as families, united and together, we really can win. And you know what? We have no other choice.

Simple Steps That Work

Remember that tackling your child’s obesity is a family affair. Here are a few things you can do to get started together:

  • Get to know your child’s current eating habits. Uncover your child’s perception of what is healthy eating and use the opportunity to correct any misconceptions.
  • Remember, children are more likely to eat a food if they observe someone they respect enjoying that food. Let your kids watch someone and learn from your own good eating habits.
  • Don’t restrict how much your child is allowed to eat, or insist that your children clean their plates. Left to themselves, children are pretty good about eating just what they need.
  • Encourage your children, when they are old enough, to serve themselves.
  • Shop for food as a family. Make a list before going to the grocery store and stick to it. And don’t fill your kitchen cupboards and refrigerator with unhealthy foods and soft drinks to tempt you and your kids
  • Sit down for dinner together as much as possible. Children eat better when Mom (or Dad) cooks and serves the food. Left to their own devices, most children would subsist on a diet of unhealthy processed food.
  • Prepare meals together. Kids involved in the cooking are more likely to eat the results.
  •  Leave the television off during meals. The TV is a strong competitor for everyone’s attention and keeps you from interacting with one another. So keep it off during mealtime and never eat in front of it.
  •  Let the phone ring. They’re usually telemarketers, anyway. Let the answering machine pick up any messages.

Walt Larimore, M.D. has been called “one of America’s best known family physicians.” He is a nationally-known and nationally sought after speaker and health expert.