Friday, September 3, 2010

Snack Rant

Why do our kids expect to have snacks to go with every activity? Does anybody really need doughnuts after a soccer game or a slushee at the movies? Doesn't this just add up to hundreds and hundreds of extra calories in a day that no child needs?

When did we decide we wanted constant snacking on junk food to be part of our culture and lifestyle? Why do we let the snack food industry control us this way?

Constant social snacking is a nightmare for parents who are concerned about a child's weight. Snacks are offered everywhere, all the time, by well-meaning parents, teachers and others who want the children in their charge to enjoy themselves. And when I say "snacks," I am referring to the products of the snack food industry. Cookies, cake, chips, candy. Sugar, fat, salt and chemical additives, in child-friendly packaging. They eat this junk whenever they can, as much as they can, and then eat less of the healthy foods we offer at mealtime.

Recall that we have been keeping track of the treats we consume in our family using red lights. My kids chose 5 as the right number of treats per week. More often than not, the red-light quota has been filled in the first four days, before the weekend, just from treats my kids have been offered by kind, generous friends and grown-ups on playdates and at after school activities. Am I the only parent in the United States who says no to this stuff?

Turns out I am not the only one who has been thinking about this. Earlier this year the results of a huge study on snacking in American kids was released. Conducted by Barry M. Popkin, a professor of nutrition and epidemiliogy at the University of North Carolina, the study followed 31,337 children and adolscents using four national surveys over a 30 year period. Kids are snacking more often during the day, and are consuming a greater proportion of their calories from snacks -- almost 200 calories of snacks more, per day, in 2006 compared with 1997.

Snacks don't have to be unhealthy of course, but in practice and especially at social events, they mostly are. Cookies and cakes are the main source of snacking, according to the study. Salty snacks like chips and pretzels are the second largest snack category, and this category posted the biggest gains during the period of the study. Fruit drinks have replaced whole fruit as a snack, according to the New York Times, which published an article on this study on March 2, 2010.

I wish we could just agree, as parents, to cool it on the snacks, especially the junk. It should be ok to feed junk to your own kids, but not other people's kids. I wish we could agree that a single healthy snack between meals is appropriate, not a disappointment, and that kids should not be able to raid the kitchen when their friends visit without parent supervision. I wish parents didn't have to worry about feeling like party poopers if they don't serve junk at a kids' event. I wish our local swim club would get rid of the vending machine. I wish there were not lollipops at the doctors office. My kid was in treatment for cancer for 2.5 years and no one ever gave her candy after a scary visit. She did not miss it and she did not mind going back, despite the horrors she often faced. She loved seeing the friendly staff and picking out her stickers.

What I really wish is that everyone in my family felt thin and beautiful everyday, and entitled to eat whatever we want whenever we want. But we don't. And what I really don't want is for my kids to feel like everyone else is thin, beautiful, and entitled snack freely, while they are not. I know all too well where this leads. I'll write more about that topic next time.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Just standing up makes a difference, scientifically

This will be quick because I learned today, courtesy of a friend who has been reading the scientific literature on exercise and metabolic outcomes, that just standing up makes a difference in all of the health outcomes we are interested in.

There are a number of endocrine specialists, one of whom is James A. Levine at the Mayo Clinic, who have been studying NEAT, which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. What they find is that, independent of the total amount of sedentary time, and independent of the amount of moderate-level exercise, the amount of time spent simply standing up, and the number of breaks from sitting to, for example, stand or take a step, predicts a host of important health indicators, including waist circumference and medical pre-cursors of diabetes. In fact, Levine asserts that NEAT matters more for obesity and metabolic health outcomes than organized vigorous exercise. No kidding. Check it out.

So this presents some really easy intervention opportunities, which Levine discusses on his website.

As for me, I will definitely not be retrieving any of my children's belongings from around the house for them anymore.

Cool. That feels like a little bit of magic. I'll be looking out for other ways to incorporate this knowledge into into our lifestyle.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Today we are one big sack of potatoes. It is 4:30 pm and we haven't left the house. The TV has been on more than I care to admit and half of us are still in pajamas, reading, blogging, taking baths/showers to break up the day, vacation planning, facebooking. And mostly sitting perfectly still.

We did our father's day thing this morning and then Jim was off to work to handle the never ending obligations and rogue surprises of not one, but two jobs. In the past week, I assembled three new pieces of Ikea furniture for the forthcoming au pair, helped Jim re-pack a gazillion boxes in time for the scheduled pick up, and spent a bunch of one-on-one time with India while Dayssi was at camp, in addition to working "full time," with only 18 hours of child care (plus playdates). Dayssi finished a week at horseback riding camp, and India has been chilling, playing with friends, hitting swim practice about 3 afternoons per week.

I meant to weigh and measure us monthly, for motivation. I haven't done it. Perhaps that explains why I'm flagging. Or, maybe I'm just worn out. Who gave me this boulder, and when do I get to stop rolling it up hill?

I don't feel great or even very good about this post, but the point of sharing our journey was to expose the truth of it. Confessing, like everything else that leads to something good, requires discipline. So there you have it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The family fitness part

For the past six weeks we have made a point of doing family fitness on Sunday. We have not missed a week yet, except for one when Jim and I were away. One day is not enough to make a big difference, but what we've found is that the Sundays are so much fun that the girls are pushing for more workouts, during the week, after school. If a grown up is flagging, they push us. It helps to have all the horses pulling in the same direction.

Following is a list of the family fitness activities we have tried, mostly successfully.

1. Hiking with smartbells. We went 20 minutes into the foothills in one direction and turned around. The girls ran down all of the hills. The smartbells, which we were sometimes lifting and swinging around, attracted a lot of attention from other hikers. See

2. Wii dance. The girls led this one, for about 30 minutes. Definitely got our heart rates up, and was at times very very funny. Great for rainy Sundays, of which there have been too many this year.

3. Tennis. We bought kids' balls -- they are bigger and a little less bouncy than regular tennis balls, so the girls have a better chance of returning the ball. Picking up all of the un-returned balls meant lots of running around on the courts. And we biked to the courts, and back.

4. Kangaroo jumpers. These are weird shoes, like ski boots, with plastic arcs underneath so that when you run you actually jump, leap, bound like a kangaroo. Jim and India kangaroo jumped to school a couple of days in a row, first on earth-day, despite the fact that both were panting and sweating when they arrived. The attention from on-lookers is a big motivator.

5. Climbing wall. Also a huge hit. Jim and I learned to belay (sp?), and the girls went all the way to the top in a couple of spots on the wall, several times. The girls feel muy macho when they come down. They beg us to take them after dinner on school nights.

6. Bike riding. Ok I over did it on this one. Took the girls on a 7-8 mile ride into town to run errands. They were feeling great until about 10 minutes from home, after two hours of riding around, when they contemplated the hill to come and started to unravel. I called Jim (who worked out in the morning) and asked him to minivan to the rescue. He gave me a look. But it was great for them to realize how far they could ride. And we went through some incredibly beautiful Palo Alto neighborhoods.

We've been thinking about trying to build a family-fitness community too and have taken one small step in that direction. We invited one family to join us for family fitness a few Sundays ago. We were not as organized as we had intended but the kids had a great time playing football in the water. Next time we'll plan to start earlier and have a grown up or two get things started.

Another friend, a health and fitness-oriented mom, suggested when we talked about this that we should organize regular family-fitness get togethers, which she offered to host at her home, so that parents could rotate taking charge and thinking of activities each week. With multiple families we could organize soccer, football, softball, ultimate frisbee. This would also make it fun socially. I thought it was a fabulous idea, still do. Hoping to get some of that going once school gets out. Let us know if you want to be included.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Red Light Green Light

So here is the first component of our program. In our family we call it "red lights." We hoped that this system might help us keep track of what we were eating and help the girls think about their choices with a healthy standard in mind. In the past three weeks it has done that, and much, much more.

First, the nuts and bolts. Red lights refer to the kinds of foods that you want to eat only a little bit, as a treat. For us this is mainly desserts; we have boiled it down to foods that are high in sugar and or white flour. Lots of chemical additives also make foods a red-light in our family. We don't worry much about fat content because carbs seem to create the greatest challenges, and because foods high in sugar and white flour seem to almost always come up short on nutritional value. The right kinds of fats in moderate amounts are good for kids. But, the system can be fine tuned to your family's preferences and challenges around regulating unhealthy choices.

When we decided to try this, we sat the girls down and told them we wanted to work on making our family healthier, and we wanted to talk with them about different types of food. We introduced the simple categorization scheme of green-light, yellow-light, and red-light foods.

Green-light foods, we explained, are super healthy foods that you can always have when you are hungry. We started to list them and the girls jumped in: "apples! carrots! chicken! Cheese sticks! edamame! salad!". We added nuts, other kinds of meats and dairy products, all fruits and veggies. They got it and, much to our surprise, we had their attention.

Yellow-light foods, we continued, are the kinds of foods that kids tend to love but that are not really very healthy, like, again they jumped in: "white bread! macaroni and cheese! french fries!" Yes, we agreed. Then they started to ask questions. What about pizza? yellow. What about yogurt from the yogurt shop, with toppings? Yellow or red, depending on toppings and serving size. Plain yogurt at home with berries and honey is green, as long as honey is used carefully. Whole wheat pasta with pesto or tomato sauce is green. Yellow lights, we explained, are things that are ok to eat. You can have them, sometimes, but they are better in combination with other, healthier things. In short, they shouldn't be mostly what you eat.

Finally, the red lights. Their eyes get big. These are foods that everyone (in our family) loves, but they just aren't that good for you, so you really only want to eat a little bit, once in a while. They have too much sugar, way more than your body needs. So they are bad for your teeth? Yep. Sometimes they have chemicals, colors, stuff your body doesn't need or like at all. They smile knowingly: "candy! doughnuts! birthday cake! sugary-cereal!" We ask how many red lights they think they should have in a week, in order to be healthy. They suggest five (phew!), and we run with it.

Ok, we said. We are going to start counting our red lights, and make sure we only have five per week. Every time we have a red light, you put a red glass bead (thanks Mona) into a cup with your name on it (see photo). When you get to five, that's it for the week. On Sunday we will put the beads back and start again.

We started using red lights three weeks ago. A few friends I have told have also tried it, and we have all been amazed. Our kids are tracking what they are eating, and they are self regulating. They are not resistant, to the contrary, they are like little zealots. It is not a chore, it is a game. I am no longer the food police in my household. There is no haggling about food. Now, when my girls ask "Can we go out for ice cream?", I say, what do you think? how many red lights do you have? how many days till the end of the week? and they decide whether to choose ice cream at that moment, or not. When they ask, is this a red light? I say, I don't know, what's in it? They read labels, looking for sugar content, and they have started to notice differences in vitamin content, protein, fats, etc. Recently I pointed out the differences in length of ingredient lists. When lists are very long, I said, the food often has chemicals and other unhealthy stuff in it. That moves the food out of the green light category. They are thinking about portions: how many gobstoppers do you have to eat to get a red light? One is probably yellow, but a handful is red. They are taking pride in their healthy choices, because they are making them themselves, and they are motivated to comply with the red-light standard, because they chose it. I am sure it helps that Jim and I are also using the same standards.

Another HUGE benefit for us has been eliminating the coordination losses that have almost certainly contributed to some of the challenges we are currently facing. Both JIm and I work outside the home, so we have had caregivers for the past 9 years. All have acted very responsibly with the girls' diet, providing healthy choices 99% of the time, and all almost certainly have wanted to indulge the girls once in a while. It occurred to me the other day that when five adults each want to indulge the girls, say, once a week, without having any idea what other adults have offered them the day before, there are a lot of excess red lights flying around. Especially taking into account playdates, birthday parties and holidays. Now, all we have to do is count, and everyone is using the same tracking system.

So that is the basic outline. So far so good. The girls were in a wedding last night. They declined an invitation to get ice cream on Friday because they wanted wedding cake on Saturday. I am beginning to exhale.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Launch

About three weeks ago Jim and I decided to get accountable. The girls were asleep and we were laying in the dark, talking about how to get on top of our family fitness goals. We care a lot about our family's health, our eating and exercise habits, and how our girls are going to relate to their own bodies. Jim and I have had our own struggles, and they continue to this day. The universe blessed us with very healthy appetites, large frames, and sluggish metabolisms, and then dropped us into a time and place in which we are judged, and we judge others, for failing at thinness. Our goal has been to prep the girls for success in such a world without imposing its cruel standards. No wonder we can't sleep.

This particular conversation in the dark a few weeks ago was one of many, many such conversations, in which we have discussed different approaches to helping our daughters (and ourselves!) develop and maintain healthy eating habits, and an active lifestyle, without imposing shame and dissatisfaction about who we are. I have talked with pediatricians, psychotherapists, a life coach, three nannies, a homeopath, a naturopath and many, many other smart and concerned parents about these challenges. Jim likes to go to the science, and reads constantly about the latest studies on eating, exercise and health outcomes. The number of theories and approaches out there almost matches the zeal with which we seek an answer. What is the best thing to do?

Three weeks ago we came to our senses realized that -- shocking truth -- although everyone has a theory, no one actually knows. And that liberated us to try it our own way.

We are currently experimenting with our own family fitness/wellness program and you are invited to join us. It is called Thinkfit Family Fitness. Thinkfit is the name of a small fitness company of which Jim is currently CEO (see The Family Fitness part was inspired by our friends the Fearons, who have their own version.

Thinkfit Family Fitness includes three main components:

(1) guidelines for nutrition and eating habits, with a fun tracking system that even young kids can use to monitor their own choices
(2) a series of fun family exercise activities that kids can follow, enjoy, and even help develop and lead
(3) a set of underlying principles that empower families with challenges around food and fitness, rather than shaming them, by putting psychological well-being and self acceptance on par with cultural and medical standards of health and beauty

In doing this, and making our efforts public, we have four main goals:

(1) Improve our own family’s health and fitness by making ourselves accountable to a virtual audience of supporters and voyeurs
(2) Provide inspiration, community and social support for other families looking for help with their own fitness challenges and goals
(3) Promote ThinkFit, a small fitness company of which Jim is currently CEO, to families, schools and other institutions as a source of products and services that can support fun family fitness activities, and
(4) thinking really big now . . . make one small step toward understanding and intervening in the childhood obesity epidemic.
You can watch, comment, or try it yourselves, and please tell us what you think.