When kids get old enough for solid food, depriving them of sweets is a popular strategy that can often backfire. Caitlin, 36, a housewife with two kids, tells of a friend who doesn’t let her 3-year-old daughter eat any sugar whatsoever and has essentially invented her own version of Baby Atkins. “Whenever her daughter would see something sweet, she’d lose it, just be crazy,” says Caitlin. “We were in Central Park one day, and we couldn’t find her daughter. Then I found her behind a rock. She’d found broken cookies and was eating them off the ground. I pulled my friend over, and I said, ‘You look at me. Either you want to pay for therapy bills now or you give her sugar when she wants it. Limit it, but give it to her, for God’s sake!’ ”
The recent campaign against carbs is particularly alarming to parents, since children seem naturally inclined to be the biggest carbo loaders in existence. But nutritionists say the mistake here is thinking that kids are simply mini-adults.
“Carbs are not bad guys,” says nutritionist Dr. Carol Forman Helerstein. “Children need carbs to help their brains grow and to give them energy. You don’t want to do an Atkins with kids—ever!” The carbs they should be eating, however, are not the Cocoa Puffs or Pringles variety but rather fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads and pastas, which have hefty doses of nutrients and fiber and less sugar.
Putting kids on “fat-free” diets is another mistake Helerstein sees a lot. This runs the risk of depriving them of “good” fats like omega-3 oils. What Helerstein recommends for kids is a Zone-like ratio of 40 percent carbs, 30 percent fats, and 30 percent protein. “There are only three ways to take in a calorie: through a protein, a carb, or a fat. When parents say ‘Take my child off carbs,’ it’s a very simplistic approach,” she says.
Parents are becoming increasingly fixated on what their children are fed at school, even though these meals account for a small fraction of their diet. Administrators are responding in various ways. At Chapin, the East Side girls’ school, Cynthia Pegler, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent eating disorders, has been called in to address food concerns for the parents of second-graders.
At Trevor Day School, in the East Eighties, administrators have swapped sugar-laden cookies at morning snack for baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, and mini-pretzels, and the lunchtime menu is available for parental approval on the school’s Website. At St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, when a parent requested hummus and red peppers for the 4-year-olds, staff put it on the menu but “could not convince the children to touch it.” When they tried placing the hot vegetable of the day directly on the trays of the junior kindergartners, disaster struck. “This one little boy who was 5 burst into tears. Hysterical tears,” says St. Hilda’s Holt. “He said, ‘I hate peas! I just hate peas!’ We told him it was okay, that he didn’t have to eat them. But knowing he didn’t have to eat them didn’t make him feel any better. Now, that was a fairly extreme reaction,” says Holt, who is not going to try that tactic again. “But there’s no reason to make a child cry over this. We don’t want to make eating an ‘issue.’ ”
But all this effort by parents and teachers can be easily subverted by enterprising children. Pearson would pack her older son a healthy lunch for school that she eventually learned he would promptly trade for the calorie-laden feast of a skinny classmate, whose own mother was trying to beef him up. Meanwhile, Pearson’s younger son would trade his friendship for Fruit Roll-Ups.
For parents who are overweight themselves, or who have struggled with their weight in the past, the slightest uptick in the size of their children is taken as a sign that they’re on the same painful track. One father, with a teenage son who weighs 210 pounds, describes himself as a “compulsive overeater” and estimates he’s gained and lost more than 700 pounds in his lifetime. What kills him is watching his son struggle with his eating in the same way as he did. “Normally, a man wraps a towel around his waist when he comes out of the shower,” he says. “My son started wrapping a towel around his armpits when he was 11.”
Sometimes, says Pegler, the kids appear to be handling their weight issues better than their parents do. “The weight is not necessarily affecting the kid, but the parents are the ones with the anxiety,” she says. One mother who was 35 pounds overweight as a child cringes at the thought of the dressing-room brawls she and her preteen daughter have. “She wants to wear all the things the other kids wear. She’ll put something on, and it won’t close right or under the arms it would pucker. I’d say, ‘Why don’t we try the next size?’ She’d say, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
Shopping for jeans produced the most fireworks. “I remember lying down on my bed with Gloria Vanderbilts and trying to pull them up,” says the mom with a sigh. “Now they make everything with Lycra. You can get it on, but that doesn’t mean it looks right.”
The trickiest part is when parents have a distorted body-image problem of their own, one that goes way beyond chronic dieting to how they actually see their own kids’ bodies. “There are times,” says Dr. Richard Kowal, a nutritionist, “when a mother comes in and I have to turn her away because her daughter is normal weight. It goes without saying that mothers in this city are in terrific shape. They’re slim,” he says. “And they are hypersensitive.”
As Helerstein says, “We all hand our kids our own baggage very efficiently.”
Kids are overweight for many reasons. Like adults, some eat too much because they are bored or depressed. Another cause, says Helerstein, is stress, which she says can stimulate the production of insulin. “And more insulin,” she says, “causes more body fat.”
“I had a young girl whose mother worked in a medical office,” says Helerstein. “She was always getting on this girl’s case about eating. The kid was a nervous maniac because of this nutsy mother. All she was doing was making the kid heavier. First of all, she wanted to rebel, and her way of rebelling was to eat incorrectly. And the kid was under so much stress, which made her heavier, too.”
The most highly charged scenario, however, may be when kids are overweight because of their own genetics, even though their parents and siblings are thin. “Just because parents are skinny doesn’t mean that their genetics are skinny,” says Brovender.