By: Tanya Rosen
When I was a teen, I had never heard of a protein. I thought that potatoes were vegetables, and that ice cream milkshakes with strawberry flavors were fruits. Many years have passed since then and times have changed. My kids at age 5/6 can read a simple food label and they certainly can tell you examples of proteins, starches, etc. (And no, this is not because their mother is a nutritionist). It used to be taboo and unheard of to talk to kids about health and nutrition whereas now it is completely acceptable and even encouraged.
Before you decide you are horrified at the prospect of putting a kid or a teen on a “diet”, understand that:
- There is a huge difference between healthy eating and a diet.
- Just like you want your child to have social skills, academic skills, etc. so too she needs to have healthy lifestyle skills.
- Pretending a problem doesn’t exist will not make it go away. The reality is that young children are overweight. The reality is that children feel uncomfortable with their extra weight, and are even made fun of. If your child had acne or needed a tutor, you would not object to taking the necessary steps to fix this. Weight is no different. Yes, if approached incorrectly, it is a risk, but if you do approach it correctly and positively, it will be one of the best gifts you can give your daughter.
In my practice, we see children as young as 5 years old, and I find that every age group and each gender has its own challenges. Teenage boys, for example, have a very long day, and eat a few, if not all of their meals, in yeshiva. Because we have male counselors on staff, I personally mostly work with girls, so many of the below examples will apply specifically to the female gender. I will begin with the advantages that teens have when it comes to weight loss.
- A faster metabolism: While this is a generalization, overall, the younger someone is, the quicker their metabolism functions, helping them to burn what they eat quicker, and not “stick” to them, so to speak. Most likely, the teen has never crash dieted or went on an extreme plan, creating an unharmed and untouched metabolism.
- Teens have less responsibility at this stage in their life than they will have later on as adults. Tests and extracurricular may seem overwhelming, but it is nowhere near what they will face when staying up with crying babies, or running from work to make suppers, or juggling motherhood and a career, etc. Life is less loaded and busy than it will be later on, which gives them the opportunity to focus on their meal plan if they so choose to.
- The parents are probably paying for the program and supporting their efforts. Chances are, the teen is being “sponsored” by his/her parents on many levels, such as financially (by paying for it), emotionally (by encouraging it), and even practically (by cooking and shopping for the teen).
- A fresh perspective. A teen has not experienced “diet burnout”, as common for people who have been dieting for many years. This is fresh and exciting. There are some disadvantages , although none too serious or unmanageable.
A changing body
Puberty and the start of the menstrual cycle for girls all contribute to a changing body, and changing hormones. It is important to explain to girls that it is normal for weight to fluctuate around the time of their cycle and that it does not mean they gained weight. It is also important to check the height on a regular basis, and that can account for a change on the scale as well. For every additional inch of height, weight can go up by 5 pounds, which is NOT weight gain, just growth.
When I was in high school, we never cared about what anyone weighed, what size they wore, or what they ate. Nowadays, even among younger kids, there is pressure to be thin. This is obviously more true for girls than for boys, but boys feel the pressure too.
Inability to cook for themselves
Teens are often at the mercy of what is being served at home, as most do not cook for themselves. If the correct meals are not being prepared, it is often a sabotage of their efforts.
Relying on school lunch
I always jokingly say that when I retire, I will be busy reforming school lunches. Although many schools have gotten better there is much to improve. “Fruits” are often canned in sugar and syrup, “vegetables” are canned and full of sodium, and many schools only serve white bread and full-fat milk. For the sake of helping the teen feel “normal”, I often tell them to eat school lunch twice a week and bring their lunch the rest of the days.
Other considerations when working with teens
Teach them how to eat for life, not just “diet”
As with anything else, these young minds are very formative. My goal when working with anyone, and especially teens, is to teach them the proper way of eating and to empower them with the knowledge they need so that they can continue eating correctly for the rest of their lives. I don’t think anyone is too young to understand food groups, or how to read a food label. At the very minimum, I tell my young clients to count the ingredients list. If there are more than 5, the food is usually not healthy.
Beware of eating disorders
Getting healthy is great, getting obsessed is not. It is important for professionals and parents to watch out for signs of eating disorders. There is not enough space here to cover this topic, but some signs may include:
- Sneaking food
- Obsessive weighing of herself
- Wanting to lose more weight than necessary
- Constantly thinking and talking about food
- Abusing laxatives
- Excessive exercising
Boost their confidence
Compliment her necklace or headband, admire her grades, or notice how pretty her smile is.
Just because there is a weight issue, do not let that weigh down (pun intended) her confidence. This applies to both parents and professionals working with the teen.
DO’S AND DON’TS FOR PARENTS
- Take her to a nutritionist, not a diet program
- Make sure that she is warm and caring, and understands kids’ preferences and unique challenges
- Be her cheerleader versus her Nutritionist or mashgiach
- Give her privacy
- It is perfectly normal for her not to share her weight with you
- Give her incentives
- Obviously, weight loss is its own incentive, but it helps to have some tangible non-food rewards, as well. These should not take long to earn, even every pound, or every 5 pounds. Another idea is to have a money jar where a certain amount (you decide) gets deposited every time she resists something.
- Get the whole family on board
- Instead of her feeling like the different one, get everyone on the same page as much as possible. Eat healthily and be active altogether.
- Be a role model
- Make better choices for yourself and speak positively about your own body.
- Use the ‘F’ or ‘D’ words, Fat and Diet
- Better replacements are overweight and healthy eating.
- Be judgmental
- Unless you’ve been an overweight child in 2017, (yes, when we were kids it was different), you have no idea how hard this is for her.
- Play numbers games
- Don’t tell her how much she could have or should have lost and what is a good number versus what isn’t.
- Do everything for her
- Give her ownership. Let her prepare some of the meals, fill out her own food logs, even shop and cook if she’s old enough. Note: Girls usually do better at weigh-ins alone versus with their mothers.
- Make comments about her weight or body. Never. No exceptions.
- Compare her to anyone
- Don’t compare her to your niece on a diet or your own self when you were her age. She is unique in her own right.
COMMON PARENT QUESTIONS I GET ASKED:
What would you recommend for parents to keep their kids healthy but also not have them feel excluded from treats and parties, etc.?
would suggest implementing the 80/20 rule, which means that 80% of the eating is portioned, balanced, recorded, and accounted for. The other 20% is not a complete party, but it’s ok to enjoy pizza at a party, or a Rosh Chodesh treat at school.
Any special way you use to explain to kids the importance of health and nutrition? How do I explain it on their own terms and also in a non-judgmental way?
I like to use a lot of analogies that are easy for a child to understand. I also like to explain in very simple, easy-to-understand terms, and even physically show them a food label so they have a better understanding. A parent can be sensitive by being positive and loving versus critical and negative or berating.
What are some ideas for healthy snacks they can take to school or nosh on at home?
There are so many these days! Popcorn, pretzels, quinoa crisps, flutes, apple chips, popcorners, string cheese, fruit cups, etc.
What are some exercise ideas for indoors now that the weather is too cold to be outdoors?
We have a great DVD out, specifically for kids, called Shape Fitness kosher workout DVD for girls and teens. It is all kid-friendly, and very easy to follow. Another great idea is a trampoline or a hula hoop, or even running or walking up and down the stairs.
HOW TO BRING YOUR OWN LUNCH TO SCHOOL
I like for people to have a very balanced and filling lunch, which consists of a starch, protein, a healthy fat, and vegetables.
The easiest option on a school day is whole wheat bread or a pita or wrap. Being that these range in calories, I suggest staying at about 200 calories. It must be whole wheat, because white bread turns into sugar, and has no nutritional value or purpose.
Many people mistakenly believe that corn cakes or rice cakes are diet food. Although they are low in calories, they have a high glycemic index, which means they can cause your blood sugar to rise, creating cravings and not keeping you full for long. Very often when I tell people that bread is on the plan, they are surprised and think that they can’t lose weight if they eat bread. That is a common misconception and they soon learn that they are not only losing weight but actually feeling full!
For the sake of school lunches, I am focusing on easy to take along options:
- String cheese. Serving size is 1-2 (low-fat).
- Low fat cottage cheese. Portion size would be ¾ cup to 1 cup.
- Turkey breast. Serving size is 5-6 slices. The smoked and Mexican varieties are fine, but make sure it is turkey breast versus turkey roll which has unnecessary salt.
- Beans or chickpeas. ¾ – 1 cup as a serving. Any chickpeas or beans work as long as there is no sugar in them.
Isn’t fat bad? Bad fat is bad, good fat is good! Adding healthy fats to your meals keeps you fuller longer. The body is like a machine and in order for a machine to run smoothly, it needs to be well oiled, (and NOT rusty).
Ideas of healthy fats and their portions:
- ¼ of an avocado
- 2 teaspoons of olive oil or flaxseed oil
- 1 tablespoon of Chummus or Tehina
- 6 whole olives or 2 tablespoons cut olives
I allow unlimited vegetables on my plan any time of the day, whether with a eat or in between but always want it to be a part of lunch AND dinner. Starchy vegetables should be limited to 2 tablespoons a day (Examples: corn, peas, butternut squash, etc.) and are NOT free. If your daughter is not interested in coming to school with a salad bowl, send along easy to munch on cut-up vegetables, like cherry tomatoes, cucumber sticks, baby carrots, celery sticks. Incorporate the fat either as a dip, a dressing, or on the bread.
THE ONE PLATE RULE
When there is a party, shabbaton, or even while eating school lunch, I always suggest following the “One plate rule” which means taking a plate, filling half of it with vegetables, a quarter with the best protein choice, and a ¼ of it with a grain. No refills though. This accomplishes two things:
- The girl learns to be able to eat anywhere.
- The girl does not feel deprived because she is eating what everyone else is, albeit portioned.
THE UNINTENTIONAL SABOTAGERS… PARENTS AND SCHOOLS
PARENTS: The Nosh Sabotage
It starts in your nosh cabinets, and who bought it and put it there? You did. In my house, there is no nosh, no joke. We have snacks for school like pretzel bags, baby carrots, etc… but no real nosh. You must think my kids are SO deprived and feel so bad for them. Guess what? They don’t know the difference. Dessert in my house is fruits, and maybe ices, and they think that’s “so cool”. For
Shabbos, I buy 4 cupcakes, 1 for each kid. No big cakes to slice and sit around and tempt us all. If you do not have kids yet or they are very young, you too can do this. If they are older and are used to having nosh readily available, you may want to have a family meeting and see how you can reduce it together. Note the word reduce versus eliminate.
SCHOOLS: The School Sabotage
Besides the mostly unhealthy lunches, there are constantly these “donut sales”, Rosh Chodesh Parties with fatty foods, and bake sales. For girls who are on diets, school, where they spend most of their time, becomes such a hard place to be amongst these challenges. Even for girls who are not on diets, this way of eating is non-conforming to a healthy lifestyle. What about the reward system, especially for younger children? Why are rewards usually candy?… As mothers, we should advocate for our schools to not necessarily get rid of these “traditions”, but to at least balance them out with regular physical activity, nutrition education, and healthier options.
SUBSTITUTIONS FOR KID-FRIENDLY FAVORITES
- Ice cream can be just as delicious in low-fat sugar-free versions. There is a brand called Confetti Lite that is only 100 calories for a large, satisfying portion.
- Slurpees, sodas, and slush all can be found in dietetic versions that cut the calories.
- Beef hot dogs can be switched to chicken hot dogs and many people find that they actually prefer the taste of the chicken hot dogs once they get used to it.
- Fried schnitzel can still be breaded, but bake it instead of frying and make it with cooking spray.
- French fries can be made using oil spray and baked in the oven.
- Danishes and donuts can be switched for high fiber biscotti or low fat, low-calorie muffins (like the TAP muffin, of course).
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can be made with whole wheat bread. PB2 or reduced-fat peanut butter, and sugar-free jam.
- Macaroni and cheese – use whole wheat noodles and low-fat cheese. Try to add some vegetables like broccoli, or peppers. Instead of marinara sauce, use tomato sauce.
- Hamburger and french fries – try to substitute the burger for a veggie burger. If they won’t go for that, use extra lean ground meat or chicken. Bake your french fries, this will cut out a lot of the fat. Add a side salad.
- Spaghetti and meatballs – again, try to use whole-wheat spaghetti and use extra lean meat, or even turkey. Instead of the store-bought spaghetti sauces, which have a lot of sugar, make your own sauce using tomato sauce.
Let’s admit it, even us adults don’t love drinking plain water, and often do not reach our minimums.
Try these drinks which are sweetened with Stevia or Truvia versus Splenda: – Crystal Lite Pure (Hard to find in stores, available online)
- Bai water
- Vitamin Water Zero
I truly hope that this article gave you some “food for thought”. As with any parental responsibility we are entrusted with, we need to pray to handle it the correct way, along with all the right people and influences.