Salma* swapped glances with her husband Dyllan* the moment their daughter Jennah* put down her knife and fork. The six-year-old had eaten about three quarters of the portion of chicken curry and rice her mother had served, but once she’d started feeling full, she slowed down until she came to a halt.
“No more,” she gestured to her parents. “Full up.”
But Salma had been brought up to clear her plate and when Dyllan was growing up, he’d been told it was rude to leave food. Both of them had been overweight since their late teens and now, at 37, they both had around 20kg to lose.
From the time Jennah started eating solids, they cajoled, blackmailed and threatened her to try to make her eat every scrap of food on her plate.
“You’ll never grow up nice and tall like Mummy,” they told her, or they played on her sense of guilt by talking about all the children in the world who were starving. Ashamed, Jennah tried to force more food down and when she finally finished the plateful, they would cheer and clap.
Salma and Dyllan are what UK diet expert and hypnotherapist John Richardson calls members of the Clean Plate Society – a generation who believe that we should eat everything set before us, whether we’re hungry or not.
John, author of Talk Yourself Slim with The Dr Rocket’s Self-Chatter Diet, believes parents teach children how to behave around food, and forcing them to eat when they’re not hungry could cause lifelong battles with their weight.
“It isn’t the food we eat that makes us fat, it’s our behaviour and the way we eat,” says John, who’s based near Huddersfield, UK, and has a diploma in holistic hypnotherapy. “Obesity’s a behavioural condition. It’s our beliefs, behaviour and associations that are causing today’s obesity epidemic. All children are born with a clean slate. It’s what we write on the slate that decides what those children will become.”
John’s interest in eating habits started when he was a child and he would observe his late grandfather, J Arthur Laundon, at meal times.
“My grandfather was a natural healthy weight throughout his life and he remained effortlessly slim,” recalls John, founder/owner of the Feel Better Fast Clinic. “I noticed my grandfather would often leave food and when I asked him why, he would reply: ‘Because I’ve had enough’.
“On the other hand, my mother was a fantastic cook but also a fantastic feeder with regimented meals, and the people she fed were expected to empty their plates. She would ask me if I wanted seconds, and before I could answer, the second helping would be on my plate and she would expect me to eat it.
“Looking back, not only does forcing children to eat cause pain at the time, but it also permanently damages them, reprogramming their primal instincts.”
According to John, we plant ideas about food and eating into our children’s heads from the moment they’re born. Our own beliefs may be several generations old, and they may stem from a time when food was scarce, or when times were harder, but they stay with us, and get passed to our children – unless we, or our offspring, challenge them.
“We adults frighten children senseless,” continues John. “We threaten boys that they won’t grow up big and strong like their fathers if they don’t eat all their dinner, so what do they do? They eat and eat in the hope they’ll grow to be like their dads, and then they’re surprised when they end up 20kg overweight.
“When children have eaten their main course, we reward them with a pudding! The child will start to eat just to receive reward and praise and now they’re eating for a reason other than hunger.
“We also reward our children with food for good behaviour.
Mum tells her daughters if they sit still for 30 minutes while she watches her favourite programme on television, they’ll get a biscuit. No wonder they grow up rewarding themselves with food whenever they do something well.
“We bring emotions into the equation and say: ‘Come on, eat all of your dinner for Mummy. Mummy will be very upset if you don’t clean your plate and save her from the washing up’.
“What child would want to see his/her mother upset? Emotion is a very powerful re-programmer.”
We’re creatures of habit, says John, and the routines that were set in place when we were young stay with us – unless we change them. Most of us well-meaning parents have given our children a bedtime drink with a biscuit, but by doing so, we’re creating a habit that could lead to weight issues later. Similarly, the girl who had chocolate in the school playground at 10.30am may well look for something sweet mid-morning 30 years on, when she’s less active and unlikely to burn the calories off.
Families often have rules around food, which again force children to eat when they’re not hungry.
“The main rule to query is having three meals a day,” explains John.
“I tell people to listen to their body and eat when they’re hungry. If you wake up one morning and you’re not that hungry, don’t have breakfast! At 1pm, ask yourself if you’re hungry, and if you’re not, then don’t have lunch then.
“Don’t call your children to eat if they’re busy playing and they’re happy – no child ever came to any harm just because they had their lunch half an hour later than normal or skipped it entirely. If we can get to a stage where we eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re satisfied, our weight will stabilise at its optimum.”
Other habits that get the chop are serving food straight on to plates, especially for children.
“We expect people to eat everything on their plates and we pile their plates high with food, but if we use tureens, children can serve themselves. If we start telling ourselves and our children we don’t have to eat everything, we’ll stop when we’re full and we won’t eat every single morsel.”
The other problem is what we eat.
“Look at the food our ancestors ate,” says John. “That’s what we’re supposed to eat, but we’ve moved away from that and we eat so much processed food and sugar. Sugar, especially, adds empty calories that tend to sit around the middle like a spare tyre.”
Even our drinking habits need an overhaul. “The first drink we’re given after milk as babies is sugar-laden juice, so it’s not surprising we want sugary drinks throughout our lives,” he says. “Water is the only true drink, so start telling yourself and your children that. Water should be sipped throughout the day so our bodies absorb it. If we down a litre of water in one go, it will just pass through us and get excreted.”
But if our eating habits are deeply ingrained, how do we parents ensure we don’t pass them on to our children?
“Question your beliefs,” says John. “You’ll realise you won’t waste away if you don’t eat your cereal and you won’t look like a skeleton if you skip lunch. Listen to how you speak to your children about food, and don’t play on their sense of guilt.”
Even the way we talk about slimming could affect our children.
“I hate the word diet,” says John. “We think of diets as restrictive and difficult and we believe we’re going to fail. I have always believed if you know you can, you will, and if you know you can’t, you won’t – and that applies to anything!”
Once we’ve kicked these beliefs, they get replaced with more useful thoughts that lead to healthier habits.
“Your unconscious mind can’t hold on to two concepts of the same idea, so once a new idea has been accepted, the old one will modify or disappear,” he says. “Weight loss is something everyone can achieve, as long as we listen to our body and master the way we talk to ourselves.”
*Names have been changed