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How to Un-Diet as a Family

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IT TAKES LITTLE EFFORT for me to conjure up the scene of the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The guests sit around a colorful table, joyfully singing “a very merry unbirthday to you! Yes, you!” This is the image that dances through my mind as I think about un-dieting as a family. For the Mad Hatter, there was food and celebration, even though there was no actual birthday. For the rest of us, there should be food and celebration because dieting should never be a family affair.

I know what many of you are thinking. “If I didn’t put restrictions on what my kids eat, they’d never stop!” Or, “My child is gaining weight, and I don’t want her to be teased by other children.” “Isn’t encouraging healthy eating an important part of parenting?” And maybe even, “I’ve tried everything else, and the new WW (formerly Weight Watchers) Kurbo app for kids is supposed to be backed by science, so why wouldn’t I let my kid try it?”

The bottom line is that dieting very rarely works. Decades of scientific evidence make this abundantly clear.

Un-dieting, better known as intuitive eating, is much more apt to work. Un-dieting is nearly the opposite of dieting. It refers to listening to bodily cues regarding hunger and satiety. It encourages enjoyment of food and detangling moral judgments from eating choices.

Un-dieting isn’t in opposition to healthy eating, it just takes a more relaxed approach to food in the interest of allowing space to enjoy food and avoid the problematic eating patterns often facilitated by dieting (e.g., binging on forbidden carbs on a stressful day).

So, how can you un-diet as a family? Below are a few ideas you may want to try together, especially with the holidays around the corner and the barrage of sweet treats not far away.

1) Model a healthy relationship with food for your whole family.

Do you have a healthy relationship with food? Do you enjoy food and rarely (if ever) feel guilty about your food choices? Do you eat relatively healthy foods, yet indulge as a part of social gatherings, celebrations, holidays and when you just feel like it?

If you answer “no” to any of these questions, pretend otherwise. Fake it until you make it. For example, don’t talk about your concerns about weight (yours or theirs) or food choices. Pretend you enjoy meals, even when you don’t. Before you know it, you may actually stop worrying about food and find yourself relieved to give less mental space to food in general.

Develop a healthy relationship with food – for your sake and for the sake of your family.
2) Don’t create “food rules.”

You know what they say: Rules are meant to be broken. So don’t set food rules in the first place. For example, WW’s Kurbo app features a coding system: foods are red, yellow or green to indicate how often they should be eaten. It’s not that this is a terrible guideline, but you can’t un-diet when there are rules about snacks, dessert or even soda. Some days call for a snack right before dinner, a soda with breakfast and dessert for breakfast.

Teaching your kids that all of this is no big deal also teaches them that no food is forbidden fruit. Or in the words of Jamie Dunaev, a professor of psychology and health sciences at Rutgers University-Camden, “food rules often backfire, partially because the very things we try to restrict – for instance, ice cream – end up being the things most desired precisely because they are forbidden.”

3) Try to be healthy most of the time by creating a healthy food environment.Lest you think I’m suggesting that ketchup is a fruit and soda is a healthy beverage option, let me clarify that I do think it’s worth encouraging our children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy sources of protein. I just think it’s important for us parents to be strategic about how we encourage our children to eat healthily. We need to keep the healthy stuff in the house and allow our kids to develop a liking for it over time, without forcing it.

Or in the words of Virginia Sole-Smith, author of “The Eating Instinct” and co-host of the podcast Comfort Food, “Nobody has ever grown up to like a vegetable they were forced to eat as a child. But when we neutralize foods and offer fruits and vegetables alongside the foods our kids are naturally drawn to, they stop equating broccoli with ‘yucky’ and cookies with ‘forbidden heaven.’ It’s all just food.”

4) Don’t even talk about dieting.

You’re doing your children a favor if you don’t even bring up dieting and food restriction. Why? Normalizing diet culture – or the idea that it’s normal to restrict yourself from desirable foods – tends to make those foods more desirable. And sets up kids for craving those foods. OK, so they may have craved chocolate to some extent no matter what you say. But if you make chocolate less of a big deal, they’re more likely to be able to take it or leave it.

New research even suggests that parental encouragement to diet as a child is linked with higher weight status and a greater likelihood of engaging in unhealthy weight control practices as an adult. In other words, the Kurbo app – and other restrictions on eating – now may actually mean more, not fewer, concerns about weight later.

So many adults feel joyless when it comes to food. Food has become a source of angst not pleasure. Don’t we want better for our kids? Every day we have the opportunity to nourish both our bodies and our spirits as we enjoy a variety of foods. We should un-diet every day, together. A very merry un-diet day to you!

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