Cape Town - The relationship between women and food is a tempestuous one. Food either induces absolute pleasure, or riddles us with guilt. But whatever your relationship with food, it could have a serious impact on your children.

And with childhood obesity on the rise, parents must face the problem with extra caution.

Paediatric dietician Kath Megaw says there is a direct link between mothers who are constantly on a diet and the way their children – especially girls – interact with food.

“On the one hand we want them to stay clear of eating disorders and on the other hand we don’t want them to experience the dangers of being overweight. It is a tricky balance,” says Megaw.

She says children must be educated on both extremes, and that mothers must watch what they say about their bodies in front of their children.

She cites a recent study by the Ponds Institute in the US on girls whose mothers frequently diet and discuss dissatisfaction with their bodies in front of their children. Megaw says the study found that those children were 80 percent more likely to have body dissatisfaction issues than girls of mothers who were content with their bodies.

Megaw cites another study done in the US on girls in grades 1-5. It found that 40 percent of the young girls were trying to lose weight.

It further found that more girls were afraid of being fat than they were of cancer, losing a parent and nuclear war.

Research from the Healthy Active Kids 2010 South African report card shows an increase in the prevalence of overweight and obese teenagers between 2002 and 2008.

But how does a parent introduce healthy eating habits and lifestyle without distorting the child’s view of food?

Megaw says it’s important for parents to lead by example. “Don’t lecture and talk about weight all the time, just change,” she says.

The best way to teach children about healthy eating, says Megaw, is to mirror it. Parents should eat a healthy, balanced diet and get involved with children in physical activity. Treat foods should be kept to a minimum and healthy foods embraced with enjoyment. Food preparation can be made a family effort.

Megaw says emphasis should not be placed on achieving a target weight. Instead, it should be on healthy eating and regular exercise.

Megaw warns that children as young as five can develop eating disorders, but the most common age group is nine to 16.

These manifest in different ways, including children eating out of boredom or comfort. Megaw says an early warning bell is when children start restricting the volume of food or cutting out an entire food group.

Bulimia – purging immediately after eating – is more common in the older age groups, and can be missed since the children are often of normal weight. Megaw urges parents to look out for laxative use, children excusing themselves from the table after eating, binge eating and food disappearing from the kitchen.

As the disorder progresses, a child may become withdrawn and avoid eating in front of people.

They may also wear baggy clothes if they start losing lots of weight.

If there is cause for concern, the first step would be an assessment by the family GP or paediatrician. The child may be referred to a psychologist, who will work with a dietician who specialises in eating disorders.


* Eat a variety of foods.

* Eat enough fruit and vegetables – five portions a day.

* Make starchy foods the basis of most meals.

* Eat wholegrain products.

* Eat dried beans, lentils or soya on a daily basis.

* Chicken, fish, egg and meat can be eaten daily.

* Drink milk, yoghurt or amasi daily.

* Use salt sparingly, and choose low-salt and low-fat foods.

* Foods and drinks high in sugar should be consumed sparingly.

* Drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Sea Point dietician Kelly Lynch has had extensive experience in weight loss management and says number one factor that stands in the way of a long-term healthy lifestyle is the mind.

“Often, people don’t believe that they can lose weight,” she says. The need for a quick fix is a huge stumbling block.

“People don’t like the idea of a balanced diet but it is the only way. Your dietician can work out the exact portion sizes for you to ensure you get the correct nutrition and lose weight.”

There are hundreds of options when it comes to buying ready-made food.

“Restaurant food is not going to help you lose weight. Home cooked food is healthier.” - Cape Argus