Even if you manage to enforce a diet on your child, the minute they are out of sight you may find they “cheat.” In the long term, tight control over your child’s diet is not going to work. So what do you do instead?
Some might call it manipulation or brainwashing, but I prefer to think of it as empowerment. To feel empowered about their diet, people of all ages need a few things:
- To believe their diet will keep them healthy or has the potential to make them feel better
- To know what they need to do to stay safe and stick to the diet
- To be given control over what, when, and how they eat
- Bonus: It also helps if they like the food!
Give these things to your children (and yourself while you’re at it), and you’ll have a much happier family life and a much healthier relationship to food! So… how do you do it? We’ll lay out the steps in this series!
Before we get started, though, I’d like to elaborate a bit on the reasons one may or may not decide to put their kid on a special diet. In general, I think dieting as it is typically undertaken in our culture is a bad, bad idea, especially where kids are concerned.
If you are putting your children on a diet to get them to lose weight STOP RIGHT NOW! It’s been shown time and again that dieting for weight loss, especially as a child, is a good way to create low self-esteem, eating disorders, and a dangerous long term pattern of weight cycling.
If you are concerned about your child’s amount of fat, you may want to look into potential underlying health issues. Just remember – your child’s size is not the problem, and not the focus. When seeing health care professionals, protect your child from their fat-shaming ways!
Here are some of the potential reasons and underlying health issues you may want to screen for if your child may be fat:
- Food allergies, intolerances, or other digestive problems (even celiac disease).
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Hypothyroidism – can cause a puffy appearance, weight gain, and short stature
- Growth Hormone Deficiency – these children will stay short but sometimes put on weight anyway.
- Prader-Willi Syndrome – this very rare condition makes people ravenously hungry.
- Cushing’s Syndrome – elevated cortisol levels lead to weight gain.
- Poor quality diet – processed food, nutrient deficient food, lots of sugar, salt, preservatives
- Not enough physical activity
- Emotional eating due to life stress
- Getting ready for a growth spurt – kids often grow “out” before they grow “up,” especially at the onset of puberty
Of course you will want to treat any medical condition that you uncover, and that may include making dietary changes. You may also want to change your family’s lifestyle to include more nourishing foods and exercise. Just remember – this isn’t about size. It’s about health. Whether your children stay fat or slim down isn’t your measure of “success.”
Some kids are very small for their age and don’t gain weight. I’ve seen doctors prescribe “whatever you can get in the kid” diets to picky eaters, without even checking for potential root causes of their size. They call it “Failure to Thrive” – a meaningless diagnosis, since it only describes the child’s growth pattern, not the cause!
If a child is not growing, or is dropping percentile lines on the growth chart there is cause for concern. While tracking a child’s size can give insights into health, solving the underlying problem – not just growth) needs to be the goal of a diet. Here are some of the conditions your health care practitioner should look into if your child is not growing as expected:
- Celiac Disease – the villi in the small intestine become damaged, leading to malnutrition.
- Hyperthyroidism – the child will often have a strong appetite if this is the cause.
- Infection – when fighting off an infection a person may lose their appetite and lose weight.
- Diarrhea or Vomiting – these can be caused by infections, food poisoning, food intolerances, allergies, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcers, or other digestive problems.
- Turner’s Syndrome – a chromosomal abnormality in some girls which causes short stature among other things.
- Kidney Disease – nutritional deficiencies and hormonal imbalances can be caused by kidney disease.
- Growth Hormone Deficiency – causes shorter stature, often with increased weight for height.
- Sores in the Mouth – canker sores can make it painful to eat. These can be caused by allergies or celiac disease. Any other sore in the mouth or esophagus could have the same effect.
- Sensory Integration Issues – if overwhelmed by flavors, smells, or textures, sensory integration issues may be preventing your child from eating.
- An Eating Disorder – it is possible your child has an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulemia which causes them to restrict calories, purge them, or exercise excessively. It’s important not to jump to the conclusion that a child who doesn’t like to eat is anorexic. There is often a physical cause!
The underlying cause of small size can dramatically change whether dietary intervention is warranted, and what that intervention should be! As when adjusting diet and exercise for fat kids, tiny kids need the focus to be on their health rather than their size.
IgE allergies are also known as “true allergies.” The most severe can cause anaphylactic reactions to the slighted exposure. This is the sometimes fatal type of reaction people have come to associate with peanut allergies. IgE allergies can also show up as sinus pain, a runny nose, itchy eyes, eczema, hives, swelling, and more. Some people find that they can have a small amount of the food they are allergic to without a problem, but more will set them off. Most people with IgE allergies find that when their system is more overloaded, their reactions are more extreme.
For example, our son has an IgE reaction to corn. He also has “hay fever” – he used to test positive for all weeds, all grass, all trees, dust, mold, and more. When pollen counts are high, he is more sensitive to corn. When he’s been eating corn, he’s more sensitive to pollen! By taking corn out of his diet, we were able to dramatically reduce his reactions to environmental allergens.
The more severe your child’s IgE food reaction is, the more important it is to make a rigid dietary change.
Food intolerances can cause symptoms like vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea, or cause kids to be tiny or huge for their age. They can cause ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, and mood swings. Some people notice no symptoms at all.
Testing for food intolerances (typically IgG reactions on an ELISA test) is controversial. The tests are not extremely sensitive and accurate. A positive result doesn’t necessarily show an innate intolerance to a particular food. Rather, it shows that the gut is damaged and partially digested food is making it out into the blood stream. The body then attacks those proteins, creating the IgG antibodies. For this reason people show higher reactions to the foods they recently ate.
So if you have test results that show food intolerances, or suspect a food, the way to test whether it is a problem is to cut all suspected foods from the diet for a couple weeks until symptoms are dramatically reduced then reintroduce them one by one, every few days. It’s important to space out introductions of new or suspected foods because reactions are not always immediate.
The typical recommendation for people who show IgG reactions is to go on a rotation diet. In these diets, you only eat small amounts of the foods that you showed moderate reactions to, and then you don’t eat that food again for several days. This allows the inflammatory response to that food to die down before you introduce it again.
Another approach is to go on a diet such as GAPS to heal the “leaky gut” and resolve as many food intolerances as possible.
Doing these kinds of diets for your children requires good communication and teamwork. You will be relying on your child to tell you or show you their symptoms, and to stick to the diet so that you can get good information about what is or isn’t causing reactions!
There are two kinds of diabetes, and while both can be helped by dietary changes, their requirements are different. There is no dietary solution for Diabetes Type 1.
Type 1 Diabetes (formerly known as juvenile diabetes), is
believed to be an autoimmune disorder in which the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed attacked and so can’t produce insulin. Without these cells, the body can not produce the insulin necessary to metabolize food. That results in high blood sugar. To control diabetes type 1, your child needs to eat regularly with a consistent balance of carbs, protein, and fat. Keeping good records is also important. edit to add: Choosing a diet that includes regular eating times and a consistent balance of carbs, protein, and fat, and keeping a food journal may help them avoid extreme swings in blood sugar; however, this will not change the fact that they will still need to monitor blood sugar and take insulin. Blood sugar is also affected by stress, activity levels, and more. Your child also may be able to learn to recognize the feeling of high and low blood sugar to help with monitoring. Children with Type 1 Diabetes should be told that there is nothing they did to cause their disease. A good diet is not a cure for Type 1 Diabetes. Until a cure is found, they will need to use insulin, no matter what foods they eat.
In Type 2 Diabetes there is plenty of insulin, but the body doesn’t respond to it properly. Supplements or medications may be prescribed, and blood sugar will need to be monitored throughout the day. As with type 1 diabetes, good records of diet need to be kept, and your child will need to eat regularly with a consistent balance of carbs, protein, and fat. As with diabetes type 1, blood sugar highs and lows need to be recognized and treated to prevent serious problems.
“Cheating” on a diet as a diabetic can be very dangerous. Getting fingers stuck several times a day and getting injections of insulin isn’t fun. Kids with diabetes need to understand as much as possible about their condition in order to be able to cope with these realities of treatment.
ADD/ADHD, Mood Disorders, Autism, Learning Disabilities, etc.
Many now believe that people with psychological or behavioral issues may be helped by a change in diet. Some popular diets for these conditions are:
- Feingold – This diet eliminates exposure to synthetic food additives and reduces salicylates.
- Gluten-Free/Casein-Free – Gluten and casein can break down and cross the gut lining as opioids which interfere with brain function. This diet removes gluten and casein to prevent that from happening.
- GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) and SCD (Specific Carbohydrate Diet)– These diets have the aim of healing a leaky gut and restoring the balance of flora in the gut so that partially digested food molecules and toxins no longer cross into the blood stream and nutrients are better absorbed. Unlike Feingold and the GF/CF diet, these diets do not include any processed foods and only allow certain forms of sugar. They are similar to the Paleo way of eating.
Unlike with diabetes, where response to diet and insulin is well documented and easy to track, or a food allergy with obvious and immediate symptoms, dietary changes for these kinds of disorders can be harder to evaluate. We had amazing success with the GAPS diet – but it took time. Having the children’s cooperation and commitment to a diet like this is critical to its long term success.
If there are no known health issues and you simply want your family to eat real, whole, organic food, we heartily approve! But these are also the kinds of diets that get a bad rap. You’ve no doubt heard adults talking about how their mom made them eat health food and now all they eat is candy and frozen dinners. That’s definitely not the end result you want!
Next step – get a fresh start and have a transformative conversation with your kids!
Here’s a list of the posts in this series:
- Empowering Kids On Special Diets
- Empowering Kids Part 2: A Fresh Start
- Empowering Kids Part 3: Make It Easy
- Empowering Kids Part 4: On Their Own
What are your reasons for wanting to start your children on a special diet?
This post is part of Fat Tuesday, Tip Me Tuesday, Hearth and Soul, Traditional Tuesdays, Teach Me Tuesday, and Healthy 2day Wednesdays, and Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Fresh Bites Friday, Allergy Free Wednesdays.