Help Your Kids Lose Weight by Losing Weight Yourself

By — Obesity Prevention Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

The statistics are shocking. Two-thirds of U.S. adults and (depending on how you count) at least a fifth of children are now overweight or obese. Nearly everyone is either struggling with their own weight or has friends and relatives who do so. And the problems are not going away: medical complications due to years of excess poundage are only now starting to emerge, and for the first time children are being diagnosed with the unthinkable ¾ diseases like Type 2 diabetes, that previously were seen almost exclusively in middle-aged adults and the elderly.

Weight problems are a tough burden for kids, but fortunately there is much we can do as parents to prevent and treat emerging problems. In my opinion, the first and most important thing parents can do is help themselves. I realize this might sound counterintuitive, but think about it this way ¾ even if you feel that genes are a big part of the problem in your case, those genes express themselves through things like giving in to temptations and overeating. Kids whose parents struggle with weight live in the same challenging environment. And probably most important of all ¾ children whose parents struggle unsuccessfully with their own weight don’t have a role model of a loved adult enjoying healthy foods without battling to keep calories down.

Our Five Food Instincts

So how do you get your own weight under control, once and for all? The first thing to accept is that it really isn’t your fault if you have gained weight—our food environment is just that toxic. The second thing to accept is that dieting doesn’t have to be rocket science; with a good approach and attitude most people can lose weight and do well. At Tufts University in Boston, where I direct a research program devoted to improving methods of weight control for the toughest cases, at least 85% of our volunteers lose at least 10 pounds and keep it off for at least a year, and some people have lost an amazing 27% of their weight. They confront issues like plateaus, cravings and hunger with techniques that allow them to work through them and be successful.

Based on research in my lab and other research by weight control experts worldwide, I have come to realize that successful weight control starts with understanding that we, as humans, are hardwired for just a few things that relate to food. We have inbuilt mechanisms that make sure we eat enough food of the right kinds to keep us safe. And because instincts are basic to survival, they work on a subconscious level and are activated by powerful signals from our body and senses that make us feel an urgent need to eat. Of course, we can’t control them: they are too powerful! But once we understand this and learn how to control the signals themselves, we can get our food instincts to work for us, not against us, in the battle against excess fat.

Here’s how it works. Five basic food instincts stand out as being responsible for our continuing survival against all odds. We know this from studying human history and from all the consistent findings of modern research into our own eating patterns. Although nutrition research is well known for having almost as many opinions as nutrition scientists, when it comes to the topics that I’m calling our food instincts, all nutritionists agree that they are tremendously important and influence how and what we eat. Today, our food instincts can be our downfall, and the downfall of our children, unless we take a close look at them and decide to work with them rather than against them. Our instinctive eating behavior falls into these categories:

Hunger We need to satisfy our hunger. We like feeling full. We see this instinct in newborn infants, and we know this is not something they have learned; it is an innate need that will help to ensure their survival.

Availability We eat just because the food is there. And—here’s the thing to watch out for—we want to eat more when more food is there.

Calorie density We love to eat and we love food, especially when it’s loaded with calories. This is true in every culture around the world.

Familiarity We enjoy eating foods that are familiar to us. We associate these foods with feeling safe and comforted, and we have triggers that can drive us to eat them again...and again.

Variety We are instinctively attracted to a variety of foods, and we eat considerably more when we’re presented with more choices.

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