Photo: Courtesy of Priscilla Marquard
Using food to brighten a child's mood can jump-start emotional eating, adds Duke University psychologist Nancy L. Zucker, PhD. "Whenever the child feels sad, she'll think, for example, sweets," Zucker says. "Sadness is a signal that they need a hug, not a cookie."
Another trap parents fall into is using treats to bribe a child into eating healthier fare—as in, "Eat your broccoli and you can have a bowl of Ben & Jerry's." "That sends the signal that ice cream is great and broccoli is bad," says Karen Miller-Kovach, MS, RD, chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International, which is developing workshops for parents of obese and overweight kids.
And children can undermine parents' efforts to eat well. Anyone who has ever been on a weight loss plan knows that controlling your desire to eat foods that are off-limits can drain your resolve. "The kids are complaining about getting grilled chicken for dinner instead of bacon cheeseburgers," says Zucker. "It can really wear you down."
On occasion, spouses can also interfere with their partners' efforts to shed pounds. "You might have a wife who wants to lose weight, but her husband doesn't, so he won't change the food he buys," says Zucker. Or, say psychologists, a husband may feel threatened by his wife's slimming success, possibly out of fear that he could be abandoned for another, fitter man. In response, he might start coming home with boxes of chocolates, complaining that he feels lonely when his wife is at the gym, or making fattening dinners he knows she can't resist.
Fortunately, family can be part of the solution. Scientists who study families and obesity say that when someone in the household has a weight problem—even just one member—he or she is far more likely to shed pounds if everyone adopts a healthy diet and exercises. "If you have an alcoholic in the family, you're not going to serve wine for dinner. You have to change the entire home environment," says psychologist Daniel S. Kirschenbaum, PhD, clinical director of Wellspring, an organization that runs weight loss camps, retreats, and schools for overweight kids and adults in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, including an annual family camp in Pinehurst, North Carolina. In a recent study, Kirschenbaum followed successful young graduates of Wellspring camps and their overweight parents for about a year and found that 80 percent of the kids who continued to lose weight had parents who also changed their diet and activity levels and lost weight with them. But if the parents stuck to their old habits, everyone was more likely to start adding pounds. This kind of research helps explain why Wellspring and other weight loss companies, including Weight Watchers, are developing and launching family-targeted programs.
Priscilla Marquard had read about a "family immersion" camp at Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Florida, where she'd visited for weight tune-ups during her modeling days and had also brought her mother—who has type 2 diabetes. Priscilla decided that she and the triplets would give the two-week family program a try. (Her ex-husband and Philipp were traveling in Europe at the time.)
We Hear You!