Fat is Okay

By Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE, CEDRD

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The comedian Nicole Arbour has it wrong—as do many people. Fat shaming is not helpful. It makes people feel worse about themselves, not better! Smart people recognize that putting people down is counterproductive to self-care, which ultimately leads to wellness. Our culture needs to refocus and promote positives specifically around food and body. Moms, dads, and friends—we need to get it right. As adults who influence children and their health, it is in our hands to prevent fat shaming and, just as important, to redefine the word “FAT” and the word “DIET.”


Using the Word “FAT”

When my children were born, I avoided the word “fat,” making a rule—it was not to be used in my house and guests could not call my kids fat. I even skipped the “fat caterpillar” part in Eric Carle’s book The Hungry Caterpillar. Fat was and is demonized in the public. Most who are/were called fat internalize the word, leading to poor body image, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.


Neutralize the Word

Things are changing. I have learned with my clients that focusing on wellness instead of weight loss are without a doubt a better way to achieve health—and even weight loss if needed. The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement has introduced the concept of neutralizing the word “fat.” This means, as parents and especially as health professionals, we should be redefining “fat.” The word should connate neither a good nor bad vibe. HAES recognizes that people may be overweight but that it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Rather, size acceptance and body acceptance is most important when trying to pursue health.

With this, I have in my practice and even at home begun to change the use of this word. I use the word “fat,” and along with the HAES’s influence, I encourage others to do so as well. Let’s face it, we all eat foods with fat, all have fat on our bodies, and all need both dietary and body fat.


The Science on FAT

Body size and fat are different. Body size and body fat are partly determined by genetics—actually about 50 percent. Body fat, stress, and even the way in which we eat affect how we gain, lose, and maintain weight. Excessive body fat is part of the cause and the result of metabolic snafus. Basically, think of it like this: your car is filled with gas, but your gas tank erroneously reads it as empty. You continue to pump gas into the tank and it spills out causing a mess. This can happen to expensive cars and used cars. There is no discrimination. Rather, miscommunication between bodily systems can happen in both thin people with a high fat mass as well as larger people with a high fat mass. That’s right, even thin people can have a high fat ratio and put themselves at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and more. (1) In other words, thinner as well as larger people can hold greater amounts of fat. It is not an appearance thing, so please stop judging the book by its cover. It can be quite deceiving.

Recognize that health is not determined by the number on the scale, the size of your pants, or someone calling you fat. Health is much more complex. Fat is not bad or good. Fat is fat. Like anything else, too much of one thing can become unhealthy. And while we are on the topic of redefining “fat,” let’s also redefine the word “diet” and practice the All Foods Fit philosophy!


To support this message, start using the hashtags #HAES, #AllFoodsFit, #AllBodiesFit, #redefinediet #BodyLove…


To help create awareness, I have also created tanks and totes that voice this message:

  • for totes with the All Foods Fit and All Bodies Fit, click HERE
  • for tanks with the All Foods Fit message, “Eat Kale and Cupcakes,” and more, click HERE

10 percent of all proceeds will be donated to Project Heal NYC!



International Journal of Obesity (2006) 30, S23–S35. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803516

The thrifty ‘catch-up fat’ phenotype: its impact on insulin sensitivity during growth trajectories to obesity and metabolic syndrome

A G Dulloo1, J Jacquet2, J Seydoux2 and J-P Montani1

Petitioning FED UP Campaign

By Laura Cipullo, Mom, RD, CDE and Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services Team

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I received this email last week, that sparked a conversation between me and my colleagues and ultimately a petitioning a new FED UP campaign that I want to share with you.

“Hi Laura , 
Hope you are well! I’m reaching out on behalf of FED UP the film that explores the truth about the food industry in an effort to get people eating healthier. Executive Produced by Katie Couric and Laurie David, the film has been a resource and tool for parents, teachers, and student to learn the truth about real food. 
I know you are very busy but I’m reaching out to you today, because I thought you and the Eating and Living Moderately community might be interested in joining our mission to bring Food Education to Schools. We’re 10 days into our 30 day campaign to raise the funds to be able to provide a Fed Up Education Kit to every school in America, at no cost to schools and teachers this fall. 
It’s been shown that once children learn the truth about the food they’re eating, where it comes from, and how it affects their bodies, they’re likely to make better food choices. But kids and teachers need the facts first! Did you know there are over 56 names for sugar? And over 80% of products in the grocery store have added sugar! 
Our campaign is working to give teachers and schools the resources to empower our students.  Check out the Fed Up Campaign here and social press kit with social media graphics and language. 
Please let me know if you have any questions or need any additional information. 
Thanks so much for your time. Please let me know if you have any questions.”

I immediately forwarded the email to some of my colleagues, with this message:

“I am sharing what was delivered to my email box. I think this is really a shame as this movie categorizes foods as good and bad and has children go in sugar free diets. The kids lose weight and end up gaining it back. So sad!”

My feelings and concern were widely shared and Jessica Kilbride, LMSW soon wrote back with this message:

“I drew up a petition, and would be happy to edit it in any way that anyone sees fit. I’m not sure how much of a difference these change.org petitions make, but hopefully it’ll do something. There are enough unhealthy attitudes about food and body in the entertainment world. It’s not necessary to bring this black-and-white thinking, however well-intentioned, into the classroom and I know I wouldn’t want my (hypothetical) children learning about nutrition through this approach.

https://www.change.org/p/fed-up-campaign-teach-kids-about-food-moderation-not-polarization?recruiter=383794156&utm_source=share_for_starters&utm_medium=copyLink “

Share this post among your friends and peers, to prevent our children from learning from this program that labels foods as “good or bad” and sets the stage for eating disorders and low self-esteem.

Suiting Up For School

By Christie Caggiani, RDN, LDN, CEDRD

Photo Credit: adwriter via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: adwriter via Compfight cc

School shopping. Two words that come with a bundle of emotions, not the least of

which include excitement, frustration, anxiety and anticipation. As parents, it can

give us pause, as we stop for a moment and notice the speed at which our kids are

growing up. It’s amazing how quickly a school year flies, and more amazing still,

how fast summer seems to evaporate. And now it’s time to shop for school

supplies…..and new clothes.

Clothes shopping is one time when we have an amazing opportunity to dialogue

with our children about the normalcy of growth, bodies and change. While our

bodies as adults can fluctuate and continue to evolve, our kids’ bodies are

transitioning at a pretty rapid pace. It’s vital that we know how to support them

when they have questions, and it’s important that they understand we love them as

individuals, not based on any aspect of their physical appearance. And while that

may sound extremely logical, we need to be aware of the subtle messages we send

our kids. Don’t be surprised when they have grown out of their clothes, in many

cases needing new duds from just a few short months ago. Catch yourself before

commenting, “I just bought that. How come it doesn’t fit anymore?” implying that

she’s done something wrong simply by growing.

One of my very favorite articles discusses how to talk to – or not talk to – our

daughters about their bodies. Read on for some inspiration and reinforcement as

you work to support your own growing kids!

How to Talk to Your Daughter about Her Body

Step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it


Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.

If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that.

Here are some things you can say instead:

“You look so healthy!” is a great one.

Or how about, “You’re looking so strong.”

“I can see how happy you are — you’re glowing.”

Better yet, compliment her on something that has nothing to do with her body.

Don’t comment on other women’s bodies either. Nope. Not a single comment, not a nice

one or a mean one.

Teach her about kindness towards others, but also kindness towards yourself.

Don’t you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter, or talk

about your new diet. In fact, don’t go on a diet in front of your daughter. Buy healthy

food. Cook healthy meals. But don’t say, “I’m not eating carbs right now.” Your daughter

should never think that carbs are evil, because shame over what you eat only leads to

shame about yourself.

Encourage your daughter to run because it makes her feel less stressed. Encourage your

daughter to climb mountains because there is nowhere better to explore your spirituality

than the peak of the universe. Encourage your daughter to surf, or rock climb, or

mountain bike because it scares her and that’s a good thing sometimes.

Help your daughter love soccer or rowing or hockey because sports make her a better

leader and a more confident woman. Explain that no matter how old you get, you’ll never

stop needing good teamwork. Never make her play a sport she isn’t absolutely in love


Prove to your daughter that women don’t need men to move their furniture.

Teach your daughter how to cook kale.

Teach your daughter how to bake chocolate cake made with six sticks of butter.

Pass on your own mom’s recipe for Christmas morning coffee cake. Pass on your love of

being outside.

Maybe you and your daughter both have thick thighs or wide ribcages. It’s easy to hate

these non-size zero body parts. Don’t. Tell your daughter that with her legs she can run a

marathon if she wants to, and her ribcage is nothing but a carrying case for strong lungs.

She can scream and she can sing and she can lift up the world, if she wants.

Remind your daughter that the best thing she can do with her body is to use it to mobilize

her beautiful soul.

Sarah Koppelkam

How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body

Confessions of a Former Control Freak


By Dina Cohen, MS RDN CEDRD

One of the best cures for perfectionism has got to be having twins. One baby definitely changes the dynamics of your life, but when there are two, the odds of things going as planned are even more drastically reduced. If one baby manages to stay clean, the other one will surely spit up all over her carefully matched outfit – and yours. If one accommodates your busy schedule, the other refuses to nap. If one happily consumes the meal you worked hard to prepare, the other may turn up her nose at it. Raising twins effectively erases the last vestiges of any illusion of control.

While I was expecting my babies, I read Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, an American author now living in France, and I was enthralled by her description of the way French kids eat. Apparently, they enjoy a sophisticated, varied menu, and picky eating is seemingly nonexistent. Wow! Imagine having kids like that! I knew it would take more work to ensure that my babies tried a wide range of foods from a young age, but I wanted my children to have a healthy, positive relationship with food, and naturally, I sought to avoid the power struggles that can result from dealing with picky eaters. Excited by what I’d read, I looked forward to starting my twins, Adele and Rebecca, on their first solid foods.

The first few weeks were a lot of fun. They are seven months old now and I still love watching the funny faces they make when they taste their first spoonful of a new food. Because I spend so much of my time working to help kids (and adults!) try new healthy foods, it’s a pleasure to be able to serve items like salmon, tofu, beans, and avocado to eager customers who don’t know yet that some people consider these foods yucky. But I’m learning that the only predictable part of this process is the work I put in. After I’ve cooked, mixed, and pureed the day’s treats and settled the babies into their high chairs, all I can do is hope. They are generally easy to please, but sometimes they’ll eat just one spoonful of a new food and turn down the rest. (Quinoa, for example, was not a success…but we’ll try again!) Some days, one or both will refuse a previously enjoyed food, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Their appetites will vary from day to day and meal to meal, and I never know exactly how things will turn out. Adele is clearly the more enthusiastic eater and seems braver when it comes to new textures and flavors, but a couple of nights ago, after tasting turkey for the first time, she went on strike. Rebecca, who is usually much more hesitant with food, happily finished her sister’s portion. Feeding my babies it teaching me to let go of my expectations and to respect each baby as her own little person with her own unique preferences.

Much of my work with pediatric clients is based on Ellyn Satter’s philosophy of division of responsibility in feeding children. I explain to parents that they are in charge of the timing and content of meals and snacks, but they are not responsible for how much their children eat or whether they choose to eat at all. They also do not have control over how their children’s bodies turn out. Adele and Rebecca provide me with my own miniature twin study right here at home. Adele is fascinated by watching her parents eat, and she’s the one making eager little noises at mealtime. When Adele is particularly hungry, she may get two spoonfuls for every one spoonful Rebecca gets. And guess who the bigger baby is? Surprise…it isn’t Adele!

I’ve come to accept that as with so many things in life, my children’s eating is going to be unpredictable, and that my efforts and their outcome are often unrelated. I must admit that while the babies enjoy my homemade yogurt, their favorite food seems to be jarred fruit. They’ll eat their broccoli, but they clearly would rather have applesauce. (My dietitian brain knows it’s their innate preference for sugar, but I have a feeling they know they’re American!) I’m going to keep doing what I can to ensure that the girls get the best possible start, but I realize that that’s all I can do – set the stage. My babies will eat the way they want to eat and grow the way they’re destined to grow. And while they’re busy experiencing new tastes and flavors, their mom is savoring the sweetness of stepping back and letting go.

 Dina Cohen, MS, RDN, CEDRD provides nutritional counseling for clients of all ages and specializes in the treatment of eating disorders. She is dedicated to helping kids and their families develop lifelong healthy habits and a positive relationship with food. Her private practice, Eatwellsoon, is located Lakewood, NJ, where she lives with her husband and twin daughters.

Helping Your Large Child Thrive in a Fat-Phobic World

Helping Your Large Child Thrive in a Fat-Phobic World

by Julie Dillon, MS, RD, NCC, LDN, CEDRD

“As a parent of a larger child, the difficult challenge is the voice inside my head telling me that I am doing something wrong. It’s telling me I am ‘letting’ her get fat and not doing something about it.”  —Jennifer, mom

We live in a world where fat bodies are discriminated against, bullied, and considered unacceptable. What if your child is larger than what society deems ok? It is important for you to teach your large child how to respect his or her body since our society will not. You will be your child’s advocate for healthy ways of experiencing food, exercise, and body image. Where do you start?

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

Unconditional Acceptance

Let your child know through your words and actions you accept him or her unconditionally.  If your child comes to you upset about his/her large body, let your child know you love them as he/she is, that you love them no matter what and no matter what size. Do not suggest a diet or exercising together.  If you were to do so, the suggestion sets up a condition. It says, “No, you are not ok as you are. I will help you change.”

Meals and Snacks

Set up regular meal and snack times so your child knows when food will be served. Older children and teens may start to feel ashamed of eating enough in public. They may restrict themselves to low-calorie foods when eating with friends. This way of eating is often referred to as “eating for show.” It means that even though your son or daughter is hungry for a variety of foods, he/she may feel like he/she should be restricting in order to repent for their large body. This leads many kids (and adults!) to eat more in private and even binge eat.

If your child knows your meal and snack times and falls into this “eating for show” trap, he/she can avoid binge or secret eating by consuming enough at the next meal or snack time.

Consistent eating times also offer the opportunity for every child in your home to learn how to detect, respect, and satisfy hunger and fullness cues. Besides promoting healthy eating, this also promotes positive body image.

High-Calorie Fun Foods

By banishing certain fun foods, you may set your child up to sneak foods or binge eat. Be sure to stock your house with a wide variety of wholesome nutritious foods. This variety will include fun foods too. Fun foods include cakes, cookies, and chips.  I encourage all families (no matter what body size) to offer cookies at snack time once a week. I also encourage a few fun sides such as potato chips a couple times a week with meals. Offering fun foods alongside nutrient-dense foods helps in many ways. It satisfies cravings, models moderation, and prevents shame and binge eating high-calorie low nutrition foods.

Jennifer has found strength thanks to professionals and others who have gone through the same thing. “I have to get grounded by people who understand. While I know my family is concerned, their way of ‘shaming’ her or me because of her food choices or size and trying to manipulate her diet makes helping my daughter so hard. Having other parents to talk to that have been there, BUT also agree with the Body Positive philosophy is essential for support. I also have needed the support of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to help me let go of my anxiety about this.”

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity


Every body is meant to move—not just fat bodies. Encourage all of your children to find activities they enjoy. If time and finances allow, let your children pick one organized physical activity per week. Maybe they will enjoy soccer, tae kwon do, salsa dancing, or ice-skating!

Do not make your large child do an activity that he/she does not feel comfortable doing. Avoid “no pain no gain” cliché philosophies. Instead of motivating, they will only shame your child more. Also do not single out any child and make him/her do an exercise while others do not. Moreover, don’t encourage more exercise in relation to foods consumed nor discuss completing a certain amount of exercise to burn off calories consumed. Thinking about food in this way is disordered and could set up genetically predisposed children to start practicing an eating disorder.

Jennifer states: “I try to listen to my daughter’s sadness and frustration about not fitting into ‘skinny jeans’ and not tell her she is wrong for feeling that way. But I also talk to her about how her body is going to change and grow forever and how learning to love it is the best gift. I talk to her a lot about how strong her legs are and how graceful she is when she is figure skating. Not about what her body looks like but the amazing things it can do.”

Your large child needs you to communicate unconditional acceptance in order to thrive in a world stereotyped against his/her body type. Avoid shame-based language, singling out, or punishment. Rather engage in modeling healthy eating, pleasurable movement, and respectful body image for all your children, no matter their size.

My Virtual FitBit Group Promotes Health, Self-Care, and Body Acceptance!

My Virtual FitBit Group Promotes Health, Self-Care, and Body Acceptance!

By Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN, CEDRD

Changing our behavior is never easy, especially as we get older. As a former aerobics instructor, fitness was always a passion for me, and exercise was built into my workday. After a serious injury and getting tired of the gym, I began looking for new ways to move my body for both physical and emotional health. I found it in a most unlikely place—the Internet.

I received a FitBit fitness tracker as a gift. Now all the rage, fitness trackers “count” steps, miles, fitness intensity, and other data depending on the brand. To my surprise, the pride and satisfaction I felt when reaching 10,000 steps, or any other goal I set for myself, proved to be the boost I needed. I embarked on a mission to find other women who, like me, wanted support becoming healthier using their fitness trackers and setting realistic and achievable goals. I found several communities on the FitBit website and learned that members often form private Facebook groups to support one another.

I joined a few groups and recognized the flip side to using fitness trackers that are important to keep in mind. Some people can become quite obsessive about tracking their steps, much like tracking calories or points. I rejected any group with members whose focus was dieting, weight loss, or any type of obsessive behavior. I found several women my age just looking to be healthy.

Over the past few snowy months, our merry little group of “FitBit Women Warriors Over 50” has grown in size and in friendship. I have shared ups and downs with women from almost every U.S. state, as well as those from Canada, Australia, and England. We motivate each other to move more and eat in a healthy, balanced way. In short, we encourage each other to care for our bodies by eating for satisfaction and hunger and moving more because it feels good—especially seeing our step counts increase.


We have a fearless leader who took it upon her self to organize group challenges on Sundays. We all push each other to be accountable for our goals. One Sunday while shoveling show, I imagined myself walking on a sandy beach with warm ocean breezes. We cheered each other on as we spent a full week walking 35.02 virtual miles around the Cayman Islands. On another Sunday, we worked together to complete a puzzle challenge. Pieces of the puzzle would be revealed each time an individual met her own personal exercise goal. Said one group member, “the challenges have triggered my competitive side and made me get my rear in gear!!”

When asked to describe what health meant to them, here were some responses:

“Health means taking care of your body physically, nutritionally, spiritually, and emotionally! It means living each day to the fullest.”

“Finally enjoying foods that are good for me as opposed to snack foods and finding that my body responds well to them.”

“I finally feel good in my own skin.”

“Having vibrant energy to go and do all the things you want to do. Your options are limitless!!!

Women at every stage of life can benefit from discovering their own paths to improved health. We often take ourselves for granted and care for other people first. Finding time for balanced exercise, healthy and regular meals, and friendship and support is equally important.



The Truth About Eating Disorders: Common Myths Debunked

The Truth About Eating Disorders: Common Myths Debunked

by Julie Holland, MHS, CEDS


Because most eating disorders (approximately 95 percent) surface between the ages of 12 and 25, parents are often a first line of defense against the development of these illnesses in their children.* Despite increased prevalence of eating disorders in the United States, widespread misconceptions about eating disorders remain that challenge identification, diagnosis and early intervention. To truly protect and advocate for their children, it is important that parents understand the truth behind common eating disorder myths.

Myth: Eating disorders aren’t serious illnesses.

Truth: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) are very real and very serious mental illnesses. Each disorder has clear diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the go-to diagnostic reference for mental healthcare professionals. Another reason to take eating disorders seriously is that they can be deadly. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. In fact, women ages 15 to 24 years of age who suffer from anorexia nervosa are 12 times more likely to die from the illness than any other cause of death.**

Myth: Eating disorders are just about food.

Truth: While eating disorders generally involve obsession with calories, weight or shape, these illnesses are rooted in biological, psychological and sociocultural aspects. Restriction, bingeing, purging or over-exercise behaviors usually signify an attempt to control something of substance in the individual’s life. Because friends and family mistakenly believe that eating disorders are just about food, they will often encourage their loved ones to “just eat more,” “just eat less,” or “just eat healthier” to be “cured” of this illness. In reality, eating disorders often require some combination of medical, psychiatric, therapeutic and dietary intervention to achieve full recovery.

Myth: Eating disorders are a women’s illness.

Truth: While research shows that eating disorders affect significantly more women than men, these illnesses occur in men and boys as well. While males used to represent about 10 percent of individuals with eating disorders, a recent Harvard study found that closer to 25 percent of individuals presenting for eating disorder treatment are male. The widespread belief that eating disorders only affect women and girls can prevent accurate diagnosis of an eating disorder in a man or boy, even among healthcare experts.

Myth: Eating disorders don’t develop until the teenage years.

Truth: Consider this—research found that up to 60 percent of girls between the ages of 6 and 12 are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat, and that this concern endures through life.*** Not surprisingly, the incidence of eating disorders in children is on the rise. Between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders in children 12 and younger rose 119 percent, according to a 2010 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Myth: Only very thin people have an eating disorder.

Truth: While anorexia is characterized by extreme low weight, many individuals struggling with bulimia, binge eating disorder and EDNOS are normal-weighted. The misconception that an eating disorder can only occur if someone is very thin contributes to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis in many cases, even among those patients seeking support from medical and mental healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, many healthcare experts lack eating disorder exposure and training, which highlights the important role of eating disorder specialists to ensure effective diagnosis and early intervention.

Photo Credit: churl via Compfight cc


In addition to educating themselves about basic eating disorder information and understanding myth from fact, parents should also trust their instincts when it comes to eating disorders in their children. Eating disorders can thrive in secrecy, but parents often intuitively know if something is wrong with their children. While parents may feel terrified of saying the wrong thing, but also not want to stay silent, they are an important champion for diagnosis and effective treatment. If concern arises, consult with an eating disorder specialist sooner rather than later—early intervention is critical to lasting eating disorder recovery.


*Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), The Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS), offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

**American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152 (7), July 1995, p. 1073-1074, Sullivan, Patrick F.

***T.F. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention. New York: Guilford Press. 2011.

The Harmful Happy Plate

The Harmful Happy Plate

by Julie Dillon, MS, RD, NCC, LDN, CEDRD

My everyday mealtime chaos includes my six-year-old daughter singing at the top of her lungs while my two-year-old son eats one bite then jets from the table. I think that it would be much easier if he still used his high chair, yet he rejected that contraption as soon as he could walk. This makes mealtime a bit messier and acrobatic in nature. In the blink of an eye, he goes from noshing on dinner to dancing in the living room. “We sit to eat” crosses my lips throughout the meal, and I lead him back to the table. Toddlers are distracted by nature, so we try to keep distractions to a minimum (no TV) and give him a high five when he sits safely at the table. We are clear about when meal time is over so he can get his fill, and he will sign “All done!” when his body communicates fullness. Sometimes this happens with a bite or three helpings.

Recently I received a text from a dear friend. She is raising her children to be intuitive eaters and modeling healthy ways of relating to food. With intention, this family neutrally represents food and teaches kids to eat when their tummies have the amount they need.

Luckily, our children are born intuitive eaters—yet our world is not. My friend and I often lament about how hard we need to work in order to shield our children from learning body distrust and body hate.

So imagine her surprise when my friend’s daughter finished dinner and announced that it was now a “happy plate.” I felt sadness when she texted the details. After getting clarification, my friend learned the Happy Plate practice exists at her daughter’s childcare center.

What is the Happy Plate? Often at daycare and family dinner tables, “Make it a happy plate!” can be heard when a child wants to leave the meal with food remaining. I have been told that it is done to encourage children to eat enough and be sure they won’t ask for more food shortly thereafter.

As a pediatric dietitian and eating disorder specialist, I strongly discourage this Happy Plate nonsense. My top three reasons include:

  1. The Happy Plate mantra encourages children to discount hunger and fullness cues. When we plate a child’s food or pack his/her lunch, we are not in his/her body nor are we able to predict with 100 percent accuracy the exact amount of energy he/she will need at that meal. If a child is full, do we really need to encourage him/her to eat more? What’s more, teaching a child to ignore hunger and fullness cues lays a foundation of negative body image and body distrust.
  2. “Make It a Happy Plate” cajoling teaches a child to eat to please rather than fueling his/her body. Eating to make another person happy normalizes disordered eating while omitting innate hunger and fullness wisdom.
  3. Happiness feels good and easy, so of course we prefer it. On the other hand, the human experience includes sadness, frustration, boredom, loneliness, anger, and a myriad of other emotions. Some feel comfortable while others do not. Discounting the fullness experience in favor of a Happy Plate transforms the eating relationship—and not in a good way. It spells out that eating past fullness can make us feel happy. It also makes our loved ones happy. Do we want to teach children to eat in order to make happiness?

What’s the alternative to the ease of the Happy Plate? Here are things to consider:

  1. Be sure to structure consistent meal and snack times. This helps a child respect hunger and fullness while tolerating hunger if he/she is hungry a bit before an eating time. When a child says he/she is all done, kindly remind her when the next eating time will occur. Do not provide between-meal handouts besides planned snacks.
  2. Children make mistakes when plating their own food. In order for a child to become a competent eater, you will have food waste. Save the starving children comments and acknowledge when a child listens to his/her body. An example: “You served yourself, and you decided you didn’t need all of it.” Keep it neutral because food decisions are not good or bad.
  3. If a child eats little at a meal and requests food outside of mealtime, kindly remind him/her of the next meal or snack time. If the child says he/she is hungry, teach him/her what to do. Say “Your tummy is hungry, so remind it that food will be available soon. It is just not time to eat.” NOTE: Need to consider child’s age and time until next meal. 
  4. Hold back the praise when a child eats everything on her plate. A child who ate all of her food and another child who ate half of the food served did an equally good job at that meal. This may feel unnatural, but it is the way to promote healthy ways of relating to food and positive body image.

Raising a Child to Love Their Body

Raising a Child to Love Their Body
By Jennifer McGurk, RDN, CDN, CDE, CEDRD

I was recently out with a group of “mom friends”, having one of those conversations talking about anything and everything related to our kids, all under 1 year old.  Our conversation turned into an honest discussion about raising our children to be anti-dieting, body image-loving, positive self-esteemed individuals.  My friends were worried about being a good example to their daughters, teaching self-esteem, and hoping that their girls will learn to love their bodies.  These moms were especially worried about raising girls, but this is a topic for every mom- mothers of sons included!  I claim to be an expert in this area but it’s honestly something I’m concerned about too.  I had just talked about losing the last few pounds of my post-pregnancy weight 10 minutes before this part of the conversation came up.  My point is that my advice for moms and dads is something I am going to be working on as well.  I think moms can all learn from one another and support each other to raise confident children.

Photo Credit: uLightMe via Compfight cc

Here are my favorite tips:

  1. Eliminate fat talk:  Take a good look at yourself and your environment.  Do you criticize yourself in the mirror?  Do you complain about being “fat”?  Your kids will learn from you.  Eliminate this kind of dialogue in your life to other people and especially to yourself.
  2. Feel good about your body:  Replace the fat talk with positive talk.  Do something each day to make you feel good about your body.  One of my favorite tricks is something I heard from a therapist:  Take a tube of red lipstick and write on your mirror “I am beautiful because…” and everytime you look in your mirror, you have to answer the question.
  3. Model healthy behaviors with food:  Show your child a healthy relationship with food by eating balanced meals and snacks.  Don’t restrict and binge.  Have a wide variety of food in your diet, including food from all food groups, including nutritious and less nutritious foods.  Have desserts and fruits and vegetables in your life, and teach your child how to enjoy these foods in a healthy way.
  4. Make time to move with your family:  Exercise as a way to feel good, not just burn calories.  Pick an activity you love and make time for it.  Treat this as part of your self-care routine.
  5. Introduce the concepts of “hungry” and “full” as early as possible:  Children are born with the skill to stop eating when they are full but gradually lose this with environmental influence.  In order to prevent the dieting “restriction” mindset, it’s important to teach children it’s natural to eat when they are hungry.  Therefore, it will be natural to stop eating when full and satisfied.
  6. Do not label food (or yourself) as “good” and “bad”:  Every food is included in a healthy lifestyle, no matter what.  Restriction of “bad foods” can lead to bingeing.  Don’t say “oh I had a good/bad day” because nutrition is not all-or-nothing!
  7. Never force your child to clean his/her plate:  This will alter kid’s perception of how much they should eat.  If they don’t eat at this particular meal, there is always the next meal or snack to make up for missed food.
  8. Talk about how bodies come in all different shapes and sizes:  Respect other body types and talk about how people look different because everyone is unique and special.
  9. Spread the word:  I love movements like “Operation Beautiful”, which spread the message of positive self-esteem and self-worth.  Teach children to participate and have fun doing so!