COVID-19 has changed much in our lives. Maybe for the long haul. And we’re not out of the woods yet. The changes we thought were temporary have turned into a new routine.
We’re not getting up and rushing to get to work and school like we used to. Many parents are cooking more at home, learning new hobbies and spending more time with their kids. Some of these new behaviors are welcome and positive changes in our lives.
But with school and sports still mostly cancelled, our kids aren’t moving like they used to, and stress levels are high as we approach the one-year mark of the pandemic.
Weight can creep up with less physical activity and increased cortisol levels. Parents and children alike are seeing some of the negative effects of the pandemic, namely weight gain and irritability. This unfortunate reality may cause parents to talk of weight loss, dieting and eating habits.
While it’s important to be mindful of healthy eating, dieting or use of diet talk can backfire and does not effectively instill weight change in children. Diet talk can inadvertently affect our kids and can start a cycle of disordered eating, anxiety and lead to impulsive eating.
Research has shown that short term diets negatively affect metabolism. Traditional “diets” (eg. low-carb, low-fat, keto) generally rebound with weight gain in under a year. Engaging your kids in joyful movement instead of trying to control weight changes through exercise is more effective according to the research. The outcomes from this approach are far more beneficial in preventing childhood obesity.
Parents are the first point of contact to model healthy eating for their children. It’s especially important right now during the stress of the pandemic to support an open-minded approach to food and relax restricted eating behaviors. Most parents understand this intuitively, but in practice it can often get lost in translation. Avoid the guilt trip and practice consistency by constantly introducing healthy foods to your kids. If they don’t choose the broccoli or brussels, empower them instead of punishing them. Encourage them to make another choice or simply let it go without incident and introduce the food again later. These actions will pay off as your kids grow into teens and young adults.
For teens, parents can talk about ways to listen for cues in the body that help them differentiate emotional eating vs hunger. Ensuring that teens understand how to eat in a balanced way, with meals that contain at least one healthy omega-3 fat, some fiber and protein can be one way to help your teen make good food choices and combat mood swings and weight gain.
For small children, avoiding empty calories can be a small, but mighty goal. Picky kids can be tough to please but removing sugary foods and drinks from the home will pay benefits down the road. Mealtimes with littles should be fun and even relaxing. Letting go of restrictions and rules can create less tension at the table. Forcing kids to eat their vegetables can backfire and create a negative association with healthy eating.
As a nutritionist, I recommend promoting a positive association with food and avoiding diets. Dieting can be dangerous for kids, unless it is medically recommended and supervised by a care team. Parents can model moderation and healthy preferences instead of restriction and avoidance. Kids growing into teens can easily lose the ability to trust their bodies if they start navigating diets and restrictive food rules without nutrition education. This can also create control and anxiety issues down the road.
Creating a healthy relationship with food and exercise begins with parents. Teaching kids that exercise is a whole-body wellness strategy requires consistency and positive reinforcement. We as parents may feel like a broken record, but that consistency in our messaging will pay off with healthier child-led choices down the road. And don’t forget to celebrate those small wins!
- Wing RR, Phelan S. Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005;82(1):222S-225S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/82.1.222S
- Why People Diet, Lose Weight and Gain It All Back. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. October 1, 2019. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-people-diet-lose-weight-and-gain-it-all-back/
- Tribole, E. Resche, E. 2017. The Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food. 1st Ed. Oakland, CA; New Harbinger Publications.
Julie O’Connor is a holistic nutritionist, writer and health/wellness coach based in Portland, Oregon who specializes in supporting people who are experiencing digestive distress, anxiety, fatigue and brain fog to optimize their health and/or repair their relationship to food. After over two decades in the computer hardware and corporate venture capital industry, she was inspired by her own well-being challenges to return to her behavioral science roots and pursue graduate study in clinical nutrition. Julie grew up in Kentucky eating processed and fast food but now is a self-described seasonal foodie who enjoys recipe development and writing for publications, other practitioners and medical doctors. Her mission is simply to help make amazing transformations possible. You can check out her website here!