But it’s so yummy, mummy…

12 Dec

This weekend, I wrote an article based on this blog in the Sunday Times Magazine.The whole article is here on the Sunday Times website…  Here’s the edited extract:

There is a picture of me, taken when I was about four at my grandmother’s house. My face is the very vision of ecstasy; a swoony smile, eyes shut in reverie as my hand reaches into a box of Terry’s All Gold chocolates.
I’ve always been crazy about food. My childhood memories are woven with tastes and smells; hot lardy cake from the baker’s in the Cotswolds, afternoons spent in a blissful fug of sugar icing and gingerbread; the swirling aroma of  raspberries and burning sugar as mum made jam. Summer in Lake Como is entirely refracted through discovering Nutella (could anything beat it?) and chomping ripe peaches from the trees by the pool.
My mother says she overfed me. That she’d spoon in the puréed apple and, since I would happily keep eating it, she didn’t think to stop. I was her first child. “I didn’t know”, she says now. She didn’t realise she should have set consumption limits for my diet. Now I am a mother myself, I understand the satisfaction to be had in seeing lovingly-made gloop disappear down the infant gullet. For mothers, in particular, food is love.

Eleanor Mills as a child

Eleanor as a child

Throughout history, most of the problems around food have been due to the lack of it. “I grew up with rationing,” says my mother. “To my generation, food was just fuel, it was pretty revolting so we tried not to think about it and just got on with it.”  Now, in the west at least, we are lucky enough to live in a society of abundance; but such riches bring their own problems. While some kids graze, taking only a few necessary mouthfuls to refuel before returning to their play, others keep on guzzling.

Yet discussing attitudes to food — how greedy our children are, what we allow them to eat, what we don’t, whether they are fat or thin, and to what extent any of that is a parent’s fault — is one of the final taboos. Women will discuss sex, relationships, money and health with each other, but to comment on how another mother feeds her child, or remark on the size of that kid, is a super-quick way to end a friendship, because it delves into all the layers of anxiety and neurosis, habit and horror that surround how women feel about their bodies. Even hinting that, actually, you’d do it differently, can trigger immense ructions.

Most women don’t stop to think about how voicing their self-reproach over having had a slice of cake affects their daughters’ feelings towards food. Dr Terese Katz, a psychologist who specialises in eating disorders and writes a blog called Eatsanely.com, says, “It’s the attitude around food that gets transmitted, [it’s] the anxiety. When a mother says ‘I shouldn’t have had that’ she is modelling a self-depriving attitude towards food which is very bad to pass on to children.”
Surely it doesn’t have to be like this? We all know what constitutes a healthy diet. We are bombarded by government campaigns exhorting us to eat healthily — schools bang on endlessly about the ‘five a day’. Yet obesity levels keep rising, the result of more sedentary lifestyles, increasing portion sizes, the preponderance of fast-food outlets and of high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods backed by seductive advertising campaigns.

Cupcakes have been a recent fad. My daughters are forever suggesting we make them, but the last thing in the world I want to do for them, or myself, is whizz up an entire packet of icing sugar with 250g of butter. Similarly, a loving grandmother turning up with ‘treats’, spoiling her granddaughters with cupcakes and sweets, is a nightmare.

Claudia Thomas MacCurvin, 40, told me how she became addicted to sugar. “Grandmother’s house was all about treats: cakes, glacé fruits, sweets. I’d come back with a stash that would keep me going for a week. She fed a craving in me, I’ve been a sugar addict ever since I was a child, it’s impossible to break. If I’m craving sweets, particularly chocolate, then I’ve got to have them, even if it means going out in the dark, cold night to get them. I try to keep this secret from my 11-year-old, but I discovered the other day — to my horror — that she’s getting sweets from my mum.”

So what can you do?  Dr Jennifer Leonard, a chartered psychologist and part of the team at ukparentcoaching.co.uk. “All the research shows that children model the way they eat on what they see around them; children won’t do what their parents say but what they do. The best way you can pass sensible eating habits on to your children is to sit and eat sensibly with them.”

Many strategies parents employ to try to control their children’s weight are counterproductive. In a fascinating overview of the research, Childhood Overweight and the Relationship Between Parent Behaviours, Parenting Style and Family Functioning, Kyung Rhee, assistant professor of paediatrics at the medical school of Brown University in Rhode Island, describes how bribing your children to eat their vegetables or clear their plate using sweets or pudding as a reward backfires. Experiments have proven that “using reward foods to encourage healthy eating may get a child to increase consumption of the initial food (often a vegetable) but it appears to affect the intrinsic value of this food. Thus, a child may finish eating her vegetables but she also learns to devalue or dislike the vegetable.”

In other words, by using the sweet treat as a bribe you give it exalted status, and given the choice, the child will prefer it — the opposite of what you want. In another experiment where “desired” foods were restricted, as soon as the food was no longer restricted, the children would eat as much of it as possible — even if they weren’t hungry. “This behaviour leads directly to an increased risk of being overweight,” Rhee writes. She also found that mothers of overweight girls were more likely to use restriction and that this behaviour was associated with increased child energy intake and ultimately increased weight.

So how do you tame your child’s weight? Dr Gillian Harris cautions against banning sweets and cakes entirely. “You run the risk of them becoming ‘naughty but nice’, over-desired items. Similarly, snacks like crisps. I see parents promising children crisps if they are good. This sets up in children’s minds that sweets or crisps are comfort food, rewards for good behaviour. It is amazing how hard that becomes to change once it is set up.” And the research shows that if in a healthy sized family one child is distinctly larger, that can be a cry for help, a sign of misery or depression – a very obvious sign that all is not right.

One of the biggest factors, however, is the mother’s own weight: if you are fat yourself, the likelihood is you will pass your eating habits on to your offspring, and they will be fat too. “Obesity starts very early,” warns Dr Harris. “It starts with overfeeding babies, giving them more milk than they want or need. Overweight parents often over-eat themselves and over-feed their children. Fatter mothers are also more likely to prompt their children to ‘eat up’, which overrides the child’s own, natural sense of its satiety.”

So what does work? Dr Jennifer Leonard’s recipe for success is simple: use smaller plates and smaller portions; don’t buy unhealthy foods, thereby removing temptation around the kitchen, and increase the activity levels of everyone in the family. Next, assert firm, consistent boundaries. Treats should be a normal part of family life: cake at weekends, say. So far, so sensible. But what do you do if your budding chubster is a healthy-food refusenik? Dr Leonard chuckles.
“Often, parents overcompensate when a child is picky about foods. They start making them the things that they like rather than trying them with other foods.”

Guilty as charged. My husband is vegetarian, my big daughter and I eat meat, and the little one mostly eats cheese and bread or pasta: cue me making three different meal options a night. “That,” says Dr Leonard firmly, “has to stop. Tell the little one that she’s got to eat what everyone else eats. It won’t hurt if she misses the odd meal and it will extend her repertoire. Don’t get anxious about it and don’t make food a battle. It can take presenting a disliked food 20 times to change a child’s palate.”

So I tried it. I sat the litle one down and told her there were to be no more special meals. To my amazement, she reacted brilliantly. That same evening she ate lasagne for the first time ever. Dr Leonard also suggested explaining dispassionately, and not at a mealtime, that eating too much, or eating things with too much sugar in, meant that she would take in too much energy that would be stored as fat. Since that chat, the clamour for sweets has calmed.

The key effect of all my research, though, is a lowering of my own anxiety and more consistency about saying no. I’ve stopped using cakes or sweets as a reward for good behaviour. We have them occasionally but I try to make it low key. It’s early days, but so far so good. I still love food. I like to cook and we all eat well. But I have also learnt how easy it is to pass on bad habits and anxieties to the next generation. We have a responsibility to be mature and self-controlled about our own issues in front of our children. Remember, when it comes to food, careless talk can wreck lives.

Now where was that box of chocolates? Sorry, I mean, I’m just off for a run…

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5 Responses to “But it’s so yummy, mummy…”

  1. amazonangela December 15, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    Hi Eleanor. Loved this article and am definitely going to subscribe to your blog. I have had issues with my weight; I now worry a lot about feeding my daughter. I also worry about how I come across with regard to food. I can’t separate issues about weight and eating from my self-esteem; I really really want her to be able to do that. I don’t want her to be fat, but even more, I don’t want her to spend half her life hating herself because she *thinks* she’s fat.

  2. Elizabeth December 19, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    Oh dear, I also worry about these things… I have three girls, aged 10, 8 and 6, all of whom eat well but all of whom adore chocolate, sweets and ‘treats’ generally. We try to do all the things you’re supposed to do to encourage a healthy attitude towards food generally, trying new things and being prepared to eat a variety and fruit and veg – and mostly this works. I’m a believer in ‘moderation in all things’ so nothing gets demonised and put on some kind of foodie pedestal. However, I genuinely don’t know how much is too much for girls of their ages. Should they only have a kitkat after school? Or is it ok to have the kitkat plus a small chocolate thing after supper? Would the kitkat, the chocolate thing and the leftover cake from the party be too much? They lead really active lives so we’re ok in that respect but I would really appreciate some advice on how many or how few ‘treats’ in a day are ok for them to eat without developing a dependence on sugar… thank you so much in advance for any comments.

  3. Scott Simmons December 21, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    I came from a family that has a habit of feeding the young ones a high sugar diet. The end result? Was obese for more than half my life. Took me a good few years to lose all that weight.

    Obesity does start early.

  4. Elizabeth February 8, 2012 at 1:09 am #

    Where are the replies and the dialogue! Come on everyone; come on Eleanor!

    • fattkittens February 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

      Have been blogging quite a lot – what do you think Elizabeth?

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