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Why Prevention is the Answer to the Fat Trap

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

The New York Times article “The Fat Trap” has caused quite a stir. In the article, Tara Parker-Pope explains her own struggles with weight — and the science behind why it is so hard to lose and maintain weight. “…the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.”

There have been plenty of rebuttals to the article, including one from Dr. David Katz in which he responds by explaining that our bodies are simply reacting to the environment: “We must alter the environment to favor healthy weight — and we must prioritize the prevention of weight gain and obesity in the first place, because the problem is extremely hard to fix definitively once it develops.”

Both of these pieces bring up the importance of prevention, as excess weight is difficult to treat. And of course I agree. But what I think is missing is what this focus on weight — and all the foods and ingredients that have been deemed “good” and “bad” — has done to America’s relationship with food.

In a 1999 study in Appetite, researchers asked people from Flemish Belgium, France; U.S.A. and Japan about their food-related beliefs. While people from the U.S. said they did the most to alter their diet for health reasons, they were the least likely to see themselves as healthy eaters and associate food with pleasure. While not the original cause of excess weight, this worry over the “perfect diet” has permanently damaged our ability to enjoy food without guilt and most certainly contributes to overeating.

So my version of “obesity prevention” works very hard to preserve children’s enjoyment of eating and their natural ability to regulate food intake. Parents may not be able to change the modern environment but they can control kids’ most important food environment: the home.

I’m raising my children so that eating healthy is not only the easy thing to do but something that they want to do. We have fruit in visible sight and I bring well-balanced snacks with us when we are on the go. We eat regular meals at the table, and we do not eat while watching TV or because we are bored. Mom and Dad model balanced eating and in between meal and snack time the kitchen is closed.

I show my kids how sweets and other palatable foods fit into a balanced diet by eating such items less frequently. Dessert happens a few times a week and when we go out there’s no micromanaging their choices. I don’t point out that foods are “good” or “bad” and I don’t reward or punish them using food. We go out and get active most days and I never make them eat more than they are hungry for. I don’t force vegetables but they see these foods often.

I’m gradually giving my kids the tools they’ll need to eat well when they are on their own (they are only 2 and 5!). Yet what others see as prevention — restricting, pushing healthy fare, nagging and insisting kids eat set amounts — is teaching kids the opposite. It sends the message that eating healthy isn’t fun, and it’s damaging their relationship with food.

So, yes, losing weight and keeping it off is biologically difficult. We also have an environment that promotes unhealthy eating habits. But if we want to stop the cycle of excess weight gain and all the heartache that goes along with it, we need to change the culture of eating so our youth value good food, enjoy eating and believe that they can indeed eat well despite everyone telling them they can’t.

What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments below or in our Food and Cooking community.

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