Diet and Children – Is it all up to the parents?

I recently heard someone who opposes the regulation of sugary food argue for “personal responsibility” and when asked “what about children?” the response was “well, that’s parental responsibility.”    Articles such as this one argue much along the same lines: Junk Food Studies Ignore Parent Responsibility. Really?!

When I hear stuff like this I am grateful that I don’t have kids, because I know that getting them to eat right would be a challenge that I would not be equal to!  However, it has lead me to reflect on my own childhood, the diet I was raised on and the diet I ended up with.

I can’t say enough about my late mother and her understanding of nutrition and the immense skill and patience with which she tried to raise my brother and myself to eat a healthy diet.  I often smile when I think about how much of the “eat real food” advice I am embracing now is exactly the principle that governed cooking and meals in our home.  So much so that I am even digging up her old recipes, and going through boxes in the garage to find old appliances that I used when I learned to cook as a child and later inherited for my own kitchen.  (I have her electric mixer that is older than I am and still works like a dream.) Never was there a mother more committed to giving her kids “the best start in life.”  Although I wasn’t exactly paying conscious attention at the time, I am told that she ate the best possible diet while she was pregnant with me.  She was lean and healthy at the start of her pregnancy and remained that way until shortly before her death.  I was, it goes without saying, breast-fed.

Once I started on solid food my mother tried, with the force of a thousand angels, to keep 2 things out of my diet: sugar and meat.  We’ll get to the meat bit in a moment, but she was up against it from the start when it came to sugar.  I am told that a nurse fed me sweetened condensed milk while I was in the neonatal unit, unbeknown to my starry-eyed 22 year old mom.  When she found out about this she was near hysterical with outrage, and she got to take home her first baby with streaming diarrhea, most likely as a result of the ministrations of this nurse.  I am not sure who told her, but my mother seemed well aware that sugar at high doses is toxic, especially to newborn infants!  However, she got a hard early lesson in just how much “parental control” she would get to exert over the diet of her first born daughter.

Once she had me safely at home, I am told that there was no more sugar for the first few years of my life.  Until a certain someone named granny arrived on the scene!  You know how grandparents are.  The dote on their grandkids and want nothing more than to make them happy.  So granny dearest snuck me my first chocolate and it was love at first bite.  Again, I was later to learn that this was the cause of considerable tension between my mom and my gran.  My gran, however, did not cease and desist from supplying the choccies, she would just slip them to me with the admonition “Don’t tell your mom.”  I was only about 3 years old, but I was eager to play along because I understood that secrecy was key to my continued chocolate supply, and to this day I can’t help but feel that we would have got away with it, had she not made the fatal error of giving me Smarties (candy coated chocolates like M&Ms).  As I clutched the precious treasures in my 3 year old fists, the food coloring came off in my hands, and was later transferred all over my cherubic visage, so when my mom arrived to take me home, gran and I were literally caught red handed!  I will confess that when asked by my mom who had given me the Smarties, I ratted out granny without a moment’s hesitation!

So my theory is that despite my mom’s best efforts, between the nurse and my grandmother the damage was done, and I have been engaging in drug seeking . . . uhm . . I mean sugar seeking behaviors ever since.  My mother began allowing occasional treats at home in the hope that she could prevent my rebellion by not depriving me completely, but alas, these treats were merely in addition to the ones I was obtaining elsewhere, not my total intake. There were the kids at school who I would do lunch trades with, the other kid’s parents who would ply me with candy when I played at their house, and of course, the school tuck shop where I could just blow my pocket money on the cheapest sweets available.  What’s more, when it came to anything containing sugar I was highly susceptible to advertising.  If a new chocolate came onto the market, I simply had to try it.  And then try it again a few more times to confirm that I really liked it as much as I thought I did 🙂  I remember thinking that eternal bliss and happiness would be mine, if my mother would only succumb and buy me Froot Loops instead of that 7 grain porridge she would lovingly prepare at home and cajole me into eating.

So you get the picture: Mom doing everything right, offering whole foods and occasional treats, encouraging healthy eating every which way she could think of.  Me, the addict, sourcing my own supply through skilled manipulation of well-meaning relatives, an illicit sweet trade with friends, and, when I entered the free market as the proud owner of a monthly allowance, through my own buying behavior. I therefore put it to the journalist who argues that “junk food studies ignore parent responsibility” that he has failed to consider a child’s resourcefulness!  Radford writes:

But parents, not fast food chains, have near-total control over what their kids eat. If parents can’t say no to little Billy when he says he wants a Happy Meal, that’s not McDonald’s fault; that’s poor parenting.

He can argue this only because he asserts that the parent is the only person who feeds a child and that children are only able to obtain food from parents.  From this I can only conclude that he is either not a parent, or his kids are remarkably maleable and compliant! I, on the other hand, employed my resourcefulness, not only as an older child, but from the moment I could bat my eyes and look cute.  Family legend has it that as a toddler I would wander around restaurants taking french fries off the plates of other patrons, much to my parents’ horror.  When they tried to intervene and teach me some manners, the other patrons kept reinforcing my bad behavior by offering me more, because I was a cute kid.  You can imagine how easy it was to get me to eat my vegetables with so many more appealing options available to me!

Earlier I mentioned that in addition to a low sugar diet, I was also raised a vegetarian.  Now given my track record on sugar consumption, what do you think my level of compliance was for avoiding meat? Was I scoring cheese burgers on the side? Was I taking a bite out of grandpa’s steak or spending my lunch money on hot dogs?  Given the lengths to which I would go to obtain a food item I craved, would it surprise you to learn that my compliance on the meat issue was 100% and has been to this day?  This notwithstanding a huge amount of social pressure to eat meat, ample opportunity to do so behind my mother’s back and just as many willing accomplices eager to slip me a chicken wing as there were pushing candy my way.  I was having none of it.  No way, no how, not interested, not now, not ever, take your meat as far away from me as possible thank you very much!  I could detect meat at 100 paces and would go to any lengths to avoid it, with or without parental supervision.

The purpose of this post is not to argue the merits or demerits of a vegetarian diet, but this story from my upbringing is fascinating to me and makes me think “parental responsibility” isn’t a simple answer to the problem of childhood obesity.  Here we have the same parents, the same kid, and the same set of circumstances.  And yet on the meat issue their parental authority achieves 100% sovereignty and success, but on the sugar issue they score exactly 0%?  Of course we know that babies come out of the womb craving sweet stuff, so in an environment where sweet stuff is readily available, who seriously rates parents as having a decent chance of keeping their children’s intake at acceptable levels? People who have never tried, that’s who! Especially in a world where not everyone in the child’s social circle is on the same page about what kids should eat, and a massive food industry actively markets sugary food to kids at every turn!

You need to consider when people other than my parents gave me the bad stuff, my parents were in a position of not only having to discipline me, but they had to navigate their relationship with the other adult, and this adult was often a person they respected and wanted a good relationship with, and also needed me to respect because that person was also a carer who had charge over me for at least some of the time (grandparent, teacher, friend’s parent).  An unenviable situation, I am sure you can understand!

I know there are many parents out there who are doing an amazing job, and I look on in awe!  Neither do I presume to offer any parenting advice, as I am not qualified to do so.  All I am saying is that, after reflecting on my own upbringing, given their best possible efforts, there was nothing more that my parents could have done to prevent me from becoming a sugar addict.  And even if there are other parents who are having greater success, it is way harder for them than it should be.

While I am not denying that parents have a pivotal role to play, the food industry, government, schools and society should not get to get a free pass and simply cry “leave it to the parents!”  They should not call for parental responsibility and then use this as a license to be grossly irresponsible themselves! No responsible adult would get away with giving a toddler alcohol, and any reasonably sane person would grab bleach out of a kid’s hand before they could chug it.  But not everyone will respect the wishes of a parent not to have their child fed cookies and flavored milk!  And let’s not be naive, the food industry actively, deliberately and expertly strives to undermine parental responsibility at every turn.  So yes all you, “parental responsibility” advocates out there, if a parent is willingly buying their kid large quantities of junk food, clearly that is a problem.  But it is a massive error of logic to assume that if the parent is not doing so the child will eat their vegetables, stay off the junk and grow up healthy!  For that to happen we need a paradigm shift in society, reform in our schools, regulation of the food industry and appropriate government legislation.  Because as my former self, the sugar-loving 3 year old, with candy smeared all over her pretty little face,  can tell you:  “It ain’t going to happen any other way!”

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The head bone is connected to the neck bone. . .apparently!

This post is about how I tricked myself into joining a yoga class.  And changed my life!

It all happened one fateful day when I was going about my business as usual when an unexplained, random thought popped into my head:  “I should join a yoga class!”  I can’t explain what prompted this brief lapse of sanity, and under normal circumstances the thought would have passed out of my mind uneventfully and as quickly as it had come.  Impulses like this usually result in a quick mental process whereby my brain assesses the merit of the thought along the following lines.  “Yoga is exercise.  You are Monique.  Monique does not do exercise.”  Case closed. However, on this occasion I happened to be sitting at my computer when I had the weird yoga thought.  Although the rest of my body is a blob, my fingers are supremely fit, and when they have access to a keyboard they are capable of moving much faster than my brain.  Consequently, before I was able to engage in the logic outlined above, my fingers had typed “yoga teacher somerset west” into Google. Oops!  The profile of Domenique Hendricks popped up, I quickly read it, accidentally filled in her contact form and clicked submit! She sent a prompt, pleasant reply, and to cut a long story short I somehow convinced myself to try out a class.

At this point a bit of my personal background is relevant.  Healthy eating is not a foreign concept to me.  I was raised by an extremely health conscious mother who taught me to cook and to eat right.  She also raised me a vegetarian and I have never eaten meat in my life and never plan to.  I absolve her of any and all responsibility for the fact that I became a “junk food vegetarian”, because never did a mother try harder and face greater resistance than mine did with me!  However, when I eventually decided to stop being a brat and eat like a grownup I had plenty of healthy diet information and cooking skills to fall back on.  What’s more, I actually like healthy food on condition that I eat it to the degree that I have no space left for junk food.  Once the addictive junk food eating takes over for some reason the veggies I adore taste “yucky” and they remain untouched and go rotten in my fridge.  Exercise, however, is a whole other story.  I was extremely uncoordinated as a child and horribly bad at sport.  Always last in a school-yard pick.  The sports field or the gym were places of intense humiliation for me.  In the classroom however, I reigned supreme and took my revenge on the jocks who spurned me at recess and during physical education class.  I excelled at academics and inevitably felt good about myself when engaging in intellectual activities.  It is no surprise then, that I ultimately opted for a sedentary lifestyle and avoided exercise as much as possible, particularly in group situations. I have no positive history with exercise from my early development to return to, unlike the rich heritage of healthy eating that is currently serving me so well.

But enough with the autobiography and back to the yoga class.  How I ended up there is still something of a mystery to me, but perhaps on some level I knew that if I wanted to get somewhere I have never been, I would need to do something I had never done.  I was so ignorant of what yoga entailed that I wasn’t sure if I was meant to wear shoes or go barefoot.  So arrived wearing a pair of trainers just to be safe and quickly discovered my mistake when I stepped across the threshold and was greeted by the instruction “no shoes in the yoga studio!” Also, although Domenique was welcoming, she clearly had serious concerns about my general state of health and my ability to do yoga – for very good reason.  I felt the old feelings of embarrassment rising and tried not to let myself think too much about how this felt like high school all over again. However, Domenique encouraged me to try a class and also informed me that yoga was non-competitive, we all worked at our own pace and ideally the whole class was done with your eyes closed.  Phew!  So not like high school after all!  I was particularly relieved to learn that while I would be watching to learn the yoga postures (asanas) the experienced members of the class would keep their eyes closed and not look at me.  If only my gym teacher had a rule like that things would have turned out very different for me! 🙂

When I joined the class I had made myself one promise:  No matter how tough it was, I would keep coming back until it felt better.  So I did. I was a bit sore after the first class, but other than that have had none of the DOMS (stiffness or “delayed onset muscle soreness”) I have with other high impact workouts. I certainly found it strenuous and struggled through the first few classes, but it was doable.  I put this largely down to the fact that Domenique is an excellent, extremely experienced teacher who knows how to work with people at different levels within the same group.  She modifies exercises for me, and forces me to work within myself.  She also does this in such a way that I do not feel I am disrupting the rest of the class too much.

So now let’s get to how yoga is changing my life:

  1. For almost as long as I can remember I have suffered from regular, severe headaches.  I was getting tension headaches almost every day and severe migraines every few weeks. This is debilitating, to say the least. In order to function at all, I was taking a codeine-based painkiller pretty much like a chronic medication.  This made me feel lousy and I knew this was terrible for my health so I really wanted to get off the drug.  The doctor thought my problem was rebound headaches as a result of addiction to the painkiller, and while this almost certainly was going on, it was not the whole story and she wasn’t giving me any workable alternative. It is probably the headaches more than anything that made me consider taking yoga in the first place.  I have other health issues related to diet, but I firmly believe that my headaches are caused by stress and lack of exercise. I noticed a marked improvement in my headaches within the first week of starting yoga and today they have almost disappeared and when I do get one it is much milder and more manageable.
  2. Yoga has helped me to reconnect with my body. It frightens me when I realize how much I was trying to live my life like some sort of disembodied consciousness hoping somehow that my body would look after itself and leave me alone!  Starting yoga was literally like flicking on a switch, or reconnecting a lose wire.  Simply by exercising with your eyes closed, your awareness automatically shifts inwards.  In addition, yoga focuses very much on breathing, meditation and relaxation which greatly improves your sense of connection to your body.  This is particularly helpful for someone trying to lose weight because you find that you naturally become more aware of signals of hunger, thirst, tiredness, stress and anxiety and can take corrective action before they become a huge problem.
  3. Yoga is one of the best strategies for stress management I have ever come across.  At the end of a class you feel profoundly relaxed, even more so than if you had had a full body massage or taken a sedative!  This is critical for losing weight because high stress levels push up cortisol, which signals the body to eat more and store fat.
  4. I find that I am better co-ordinated, more agile and generally able to get through normal daily tasks more easily since starting yoga.  I have also found that I care more about what I do to my body and am much less inclined to abuse it by eating the wrong things!

One thing that did concern me when I started was that although the internet is full of articles discussing the benefits of yoga, there are quite a few stating that it is not particularly helpful for weight loss.  However, these articles are based on the assumption that the primary goal of exercise for weight loss is to burn calories. Since it is believed that you don’t burn as many calories from an hour of yoga as you would from, say, an hour of running, it is not considered the best choice if your main aim is to shed body fat.  Well, as my new bff, Dr Lustig, points out, calorie burning is actually the least compelling reason to exercise.  In “Sugar  – The Bitter Truth” he states:

  • It’s not the Calorie Burn. You’d have to work-out too many hours to burn off the calories from a candy bar, juice, or dessert.

However, exercise is extremely beneficial for:

  • Toned Muscles. Exercise improves skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity–because insulin works better in strong lean muscle.
  • Stress Reduction. Exercise reduces stress and the release of the stress hormone cortisol–appetite goes down when stress goes down.
  • Detoxifies Fructose. Exercise makes the body’s “Citric Acid Cycle” run faster, which detoxifies fructose, improving liver insulin sensitivity–and preventing fructose from turning into fat.

You can’t beat yoga for strength training and muscle toning, stress reduction and detoxing! Which means that yoga is a fantastic form of exercise, not only for all it’s other well known benefits, but for weight loss as well!  It is has definitely made a massive difference in my life, and I am convinced that it is one of the key reasons why I am succeeding this time where I have failed in the past.

If you are trying to lose weight, get healthy or just generally feel better, I highly recommend finding a good yoga class with an experienced teacher.  If you happen to live in Somerset West, South Africa, look no further than World’s View Yoga Studio.  If not, there is bound to be a good teacher near you.  Come on!  If I can do it, so can you!