Your Tots at the Table
May End Up Trusting Yourself
By Joan Price
Winter 1991 issue
Nutrition expert Ellyn Satters philosophy of child feeding is as
simple as it is radical: "The parent is responsible for what, when and where. The
child is responsible for how much and whether." Thats it? Yes. Does it work?
Yes, insists Satter. She suggests that following this division of responsibility can solve
most childrens eating problemsand help us understand our own.
Satter, author of Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense,
and her latest book, How to Get Your Kid to Eat . . . But Not Too Much (both
available from Bull Publishing Company), has been a registered dietitian for 25 years and
a clinical social worker for 10 years. For much of her career, she was a nutrition
counselor. But she found that nutrition information alone did not supply the solutions to
the eating problems that she saw.
"I was confronted with problems that I could neither understand nor
resolve working as a dietician. I became increasingly curious about the way peoples
feelings and interactions with each other impinged on their ability to manage their
eating. Emotions and food seemed so intertwined that unless I looked at all the factors, I
couldnt be helpful to people."
Satter decided to move into psychological and social counseling, with a
specialty in eating problems and disorders. Combining nutrition and psychology has led her
to look at eating problemsespecially those of childrenin new ways. Children
need to be trusted, not controlled or forced. If theyre not overmanaged, children
will eat instinctively in a way thats right for them, using their internal cues of
hunger, appetite and sense of fullness.
"Parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and
the manner in which it is presented," repeats Satter. "Children are
responsible for how much and even whether they eat. "This is the core of her
message. Parents plan the shopping list and menu and decide what food will be in the
house. They determine the structure of meals and snackswhat foods to prepare, when
they will be served and where. The child can then choose from the variety of food put on
the table and decide how much of it to eat. "Children dont eat some of
everything like adults. We do it because we paid for it or because its good for us.
But that doesnt cut any ice with children. They eat only what pleases them on a
specific day. They might eat a lot one day and a little the next. That drives parents
nuts." But it doesnt hurt the children!
Satter traces the roots of most childhood eating problems to parents who
cross the line of this division of responsibility by trying to dictate the amount and
kinds of food their children eat. "I have as clients parents who force their children
to sit at the table for an hour to get them to eat their vegetables. Or parents who think
their children eat too much and restrict the amount, or who think their children eat too
little and try to get them to eat more than they voluntarily will. I see parents who
short-order cook for their children, or let their children panhandle all the time." A
vicious cycle of tense mealtime battles starts up.
All kinds of eating problems may result or worsen from trying to
overrule a childs internal eating cues, says Satter. "Children who are forced,
cajoled, enticed or even tricked to eat end up revolted by food and prone to avoid eating
if they get a chance." And children whose food intake is restricted in an effort to
keep them from getting fat will become preoccupied with food. They will often tend to
overeat, fearing they wont get enough.
Satter recommends the same solution for all eating problems:
"Establish the structure of meals and snacks, and maintain a division of
responsibility in feeding. Present the food to the child, keep the pressure off, keep the
mealtime pleasant and let the child take the initiative in eating."
That doesnt mean a laissez-faire attitude toward nutrition.
Its the parents job to put wholesome, appealing foods on the table. But
dont panic if a child doesnt choose from every food group at every meal. Over
time, children will vary their selections. How to Get Your Kids to Eat
offers these facts about childrens eating:
- Children will eat.
- They are capable of regulating their food intake.
- They generally react negatively to new foods but will usually accept them
with time and experience.
- Parents can either support or disrupt childrens food acceptance and
Satter is vehemently opposed to depriving fat children of food to
control their weight. She sees four ways that children become fat: (1) Normal: "Some
people are genetically predisposed to being fat." (2) Developmental: "someone in
the childs environment is getting him or her to overeat and doing it consistently
and persistently so the child does overeat and gets fat." (3) Reactive: "A child
who gains weight during or in reaction to a stressor, such as a divorce." (4) Fatness
as a result of restrained feeding: "The tactic of withholding food from a too-fat
child can not only make her feel badly about herself, it can also make her eat more."
Physicians often mistakenly assume that if a child is getting fat, it
must be a result of overfeeding. "Some kids will overeat and some wont,"
insists Satter. "Some will fight to the death rather than eat one more morsel than
they really want. Other children like eating and will eat beyond satiety and not
Most adults, according to Satter, are "restrained eaters."
They chronically withhold food from themselves, trying to eat less than they really
wantless in quantity and less appealing food. They ignore and overrule their
appetites. Restrained eaters anxiety about their ability to manage their own eating
leads them to overmanage their childrens eating, imposing their own expectations on
Most adults have trouble following Satters cardinal rule: Trust
that children will eat the right amount of food to grow well. Isnt this true for
adults as well? "Indeed. Weve forgotten what its like to eat
normally," Satter explains. "Chronic dieters consistently expect themselves to
go hungry and are consistently unreliable about providing themselves with food. Nobody can
be comfortable if she goes through life expecting not to be fed."
The hazards of this behavior are both physiological and emotion.
"People deplete themselves nutritionally as they go on severe diets and dont
get the nutrients they need. Then they go on repleting binges emphasizing high-fat,
high-sugar, low-nutrient foods. And theres the whole feeling that their eating is
out of control, and therefore they are out of control. Eating becomes a moral issue."
part of her answer to those who are parents is, "If you feed your child well,
youll find yourself challenged to learn how to eat normally also." Like our
children, we adults have an innate ability to regulate our food intake.
Satter shares her views through her books, workshops and lectures. She
is in demand as a speaker for gatherings of health professionals, who are typically either
experts on nutrition or on mental health, but not both. To these groups Satters
views may seem radical, and, in fact, most of her colleagues have different orientations
about food and eating.
She says most health professionals focus on food selection and tend to
regulate food intake more on the basis of externals than internals. As long as the
approach to problems is based on externals, solutions are difficult.
Satter gives an example. She recently treated a child who was brought in
because she had started gaining weight rather suddenly. "I looked at the child and
the way she was being fed. I discovered that the parents were restricting her food intake,
and she was becoming preoccupied with eating. she would overeat whenever she could get the
food. We worked on that and resolved the problem to a limited extent, but it seemed like
the parents couldnt really change the way they operated. They would do some of what
I suggested, but they couldnt really turn the situation around."
This told Satter that something else was going on in the family. The
parents, she found, were so involved in their own conflicts that they could not work
together to parent the child. Their negative feelings kept them overly rigid and highly
critical of their daughter. "She was scapegoated a lot for the negative feelings they
had for each other." What started as problem solving about the little girls
eating shifted to couple therapy for the parents emotional problems.
Though Satters work with adults predates her work with children,
both her books have been on children, and when she talks to groups it is most often about
children. She is developing an intensive training for health professionals and mental
health professionals to help them work with childhood eating problems. And she is planning
a book for adults on food issues.
Satter, who lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin, says she lives her
own lessons. "I struggled with my eating when I was younger and it wasnt unit
early in my career that I developed a different way of eating. I experienced a lot of
relief at learning to internally regulate my food intake. I have a personal sense of how
nice it is to learn to do that."
What are her dreams for the future? "Id like to be right
here. In deciding to become a psychotherapist, Ive taken on a lifelong challenge.
Its a constant process of reading and acquiring knowledge, and of self-examination!
Nutrition is intellectually challenging. Being a therapist is personally challenging. The
complexity is mind-boggling! Im having such a good time now. I cant even dream
of anything better."
A RADIANCE subscriber,
Satter supports RADIANCEs philosophy
of emotional health and self-acceptance. "In this whole area of eating and weight
management, there are very few Cinderella Stories. My best advice is to live your life as
if youre going to be the weight you are right now, and simply go ahead and do what
you want to do. The messages I read in RADIANCE couldnt
be more healthy." ©
JOAN PRICE is a widely published freelance health and fitness writer.
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