It’s all well and good to poke fun at your dadbod (or just poke it — like a Pillsbury Doughboy), but when it comes to kids, the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States isn’t as funny as a fat man in a little coat. Dr. David Ludwig directs the Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and recently wrote a book called Always Hungry which talks about why some bodies can’t find fat equilibrium, no matter if they’re on a juice cleanse or at a pie-eating contest.
Dr. Ludwig has a right to be concerned about kids, because he has a 7-year-old boy himself. Fortunately, he also has a wife who is a gourmet health food chef. So what that kid isn’t getting in Ho Hos and Ding Dongs, he’s probably making up for in reasonably delicious lifespan.
In the Ludwig house, they have a slightly contrarian view about fatness: Overeating isn’t making people fat, it’s the process of getting fat that lead to overeating. Here’s what a leading expert on the subject thinks about feeding his own family.
Your Family Doesn’t Need Fewer Calories, They Need Different Ones
Fat used to get a terrible rap — now it just gets a bad one. Science is coming back around to the idea that bacon and butter can be part of a balanced breakfast, because higher-fat diets yield some advantages. “When you increase your fat intake, you displace carbs from your diet without missing them,” says Ludwig, “Even really dark chocolate is a health food.”
This puts a cornucopia of food you used to think was killing you back on the literal table. Nuts, nut butters, full-fat butters (not that crap you never believed for a second was butter), olive oil, rich sauces, and even full-fat salad dressings are game. Don’t write something off based solely on its fat content, but before you drink a tall glass of ranch dressing, read on.
Low Fat Foods Make Your Family Fat
Remember the Snackwell-mania of the late 90s? Those shitty cookies that everyone thought they could eat a whole box of? Dr. Luwig says those kinds of “low fat” foods that replaced fat with sugar has raised insulin levels far too high. “Insulin is like Miracle Grow for your fat cells. When a child with type 1 diabetes first comes to attention, he will have invariably lost weight. Give him enough insulin and he returns to normal. Too much insulin, and he gains weight.” But your kid’s pancreas is only part of the problem. The other part is a diet full of carb-rich foods that cause insulin spikes. Damn you, cheddar bunnies!
It’s About Your Body Vs. Your Mind
Dr. Ludwig says that your body has a good idea of how to regulate your weight. If you force-feed people, they gain weight in the short term, but then their metabolism speeds up and they lose interest in food. The opposite happens in underfed people. They lose weight, but then the body gets hungry and the metabolism slows down. “Most of us are destined to lose the battle between mind and metabolism,” says Dr. Ludwig. “Body weight is controlled more by biology than willpower over the longterm.”
That doesn’t mean can you eat what you want and it doesn’t matter — it means the way you hack your biology and metabolism has less to do with how much you put in there and more to do with what you put in there.
Show Your Kid Broccoli Rules
Ludwig says the most important thing you can do as a parent is to be a visual role model for thoughtful eating and snacking. “Kids are exposed to all kinds of unhealthful influences, but the home is the bastion of protection, where the only influences are healthful ones,” he says. Let your kids see you eating more carrots, and not see you eating more carrot cake.
Once they see you chowing down on higher-fat foods, natural carbohydrates, fruits, and veggies, they’ll learn that not everything has to be a covered in frosting to be worth a bite. Well-modeled eating behavior also makes it that much easier for your child to stick to healthier habits in their own adult lives.
Healthy At Home, Pizza For Parties
There’s a reason why Chuck E. Cheese serves pizza and not tempeh. And because treats, junk, and guilty pleasures are eaten outside the house, you need to be extra diligent to make your home a place where good food lives. Don’t buy a ton of pre-packaged food. Try to trend towards fruits and vegetables rather than crackers and cookies. But be flexible, lest you drive your children right into the arms of that sadistic red-haired clown and his sandwich criminal and purple turd friends.
Dr. Ludwig says that obesity is an escalating problem, but the only way it’s getting solved is by starting with the family. “This generation of children is heavier from earlier in life than ever before. We can’t expect food industry to care for our kids. It’s up to parents to say no,” he says. Just don’t say no with your mouth full of pork rinds.