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Lessons for Life

Dieting and children

How to help your kids avoid the emotional consequences of dieting at a young age

Jen Weigel

September 3, 2013

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Counting calories is common for many, especially when trying to lose weight. But can there be emotional consequences from being put on a diet too early in life?

"My mom was obsessed with my food intake for as long as I can remember," said Karen Kataline, author of "Fatlash: Food Police & the Fear of Thin." "She put me on the stage at the age of three and wanted to live out her dreams and disappointments through me ... She had unresolved issues about weight and appearance and she wasn't happy with her own body."

Kataline was restricted to a 500-calorie-a-day diet and won the title of Little Miss Denver County at the age of nine, but the early dieting took a toll.

"I wasn't built like my mother and she was pretty much obsessed with my weight and appearance almost from infancy," she said. "I still struggle with food to this day but it's much better now."

As a social worker and public speaker, Kataline is raising awareness on the damaging effects of pushing unresolved food issues onto children.

"Not until I was in my 30s did I fully realize that my mother was probably anorexic, but she was playing it out on my body," she said. "Parents who aren't quite grown up and emotionally developed themselves tend to use their child to complete and resolve these issues."

Here are Kataline's tips to helping your child develop a healthy body image:

Don't become the food police.

"People think that if you have a child with a weight problem, the thing to do is to bug them even more and restrict them even more. That's counterintuitive. When you are raised by someone policing your eating habits, you either feel incompetent to feed yourself properly so you pay other people to do it for you, or you become a rebel and eat everything in sight. I spent much of my childhood stealing food to get back at my mother, so I was trying to find my own way and set a boundary. When I was 16 I weighed 285 pounds. I made sure there would be no more beauty pageants."

One size doesn't fit all.

"We all have different body types and not every child will be shaped like their parents. Weight and body image issues are extremely complex and very individual to each person. Everyone's metabolism is unique. Some people have too much salt. Some don't have enough. To think that you could make blanket rules is so ludicrous to me."

Put your children in the driver's seat.

"We need to put the personal responsibility in children so they can feel like they are in charge of their own bodies. Few things are as personal and primitive as what we choose to feed ourselves. It's a very personal issue and my theory is that people have lost touch with what they're craving. We need to encourage children to get in touch with what they're craving and listen to their own bodies. Help them understand that healthy food feels good. Make healthy food abundant, inform them, and respect their choices to eat as they see fit."

What you resist, persists.

"When I was really young, I stuttered very briefly. I overheard my mother saying she thought I would outgrow it if she didn't make a big deal out of it. That way I wouldn't feel self-conscious about it. And it did go away on its own. Well, if she had brought that kind of sense to weight and body image I believe strongly that I wouldn't have weighed 285 pounds at the age of 16."

Don't feed the hype.

"This obesity hysteria is creating weight problems and eating disorders in kids (who) never would have had them because we're doing the exact opposite of what kids need. Some people have a genetic predisposition, so each case is different, but if you nurture boundaries and say 'no' to all that hysteria, you will find your child has a much better chance of having a healthy relationship with food. "

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel