Can the family that gains together lose together? Timothy Gower finds out.
Priscilla Marquard was resolute: Her family was going to eat healthier than she did as a kid. "Being American, I ate McDonald's. Being Southern, I ate fried food," she recalls in the soft drawl that betrays her Georgia upbringing. So Priscilla shopped at the organic grocery. She served balanced meals. She even planned menus 30 days in advance to make sure her husband and four children (three of them triplet girls) were consuming a variety of nutritious foods. And Priscilla did it all while trying to accommodate the tastes of each child, including the one who turned up her nose at leafy greens and refused to eat any dish that even resembled a stew.
But by the time the triplets turned 10, it was obvious that the Marquards, who live in Orlando, had weight issues. One of the girls, Alexandra—the picky eater—was slender. Audrey and Caroline, however, were "verging on chubby," says Priscilla. Her son, Philipp, was already there; at 14 the boy weighed 260 pounds. Meanwhile, Priscilla, now 42, had her own troubles: After having kids, the former Ford model found that she was carrying an extra ten to 20 pounds that seemed impervious to diets.
While each of us has a special relationship with the scale, in many cases the family factor weighs in (literally). Inheritance plays a part in determining your size, but unlike red hair or blue eyes, DNA doesn't tell the whole story: Psychologists and doctors have found that family dynamics—the way you and your brood interact and relate to one another—can have a major influence on weight.
"We need to change how we look at food, and it all starts with families," says former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler, MD, author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Too often, parents offer treats in an attempt to placate children, and the food—chips, sweets—tends to be high in fat, sugar, and salt. These substances set off reward centers in the brain, says Kessler, creating a sense of pleasure and a desire to overeat.
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.)
Run like a summer camp for kids and their parents, the Pritikin Family Program includes tennis, swimming, and other activities, along with nutrition and culinary classes that emphasize the health benefits of a nutrient-rich, high-fiber, low-sodium, very-low-fat approach. (The diet consists of fewer than 20 percent calories from fat; the typical American diet is about 35 percent.) The first meal the Marquards ate in the Pritikin dining room was a shock to their palates—vegetarian meatloaf, "French fries" that were actually baked sliced sweet potatoes, and no salt shakers on the tables. "We were like, 'Mom, what are you doing to us?'" recalls Alexandra. The girls were initially resistant to the new foods, but they adjusted quickly. This was a revelation to Priscilla: Despite her attempts to feed the family healthy fare, she slipped at times—meeting the triplets after school bearing bags of potato chips or Happy Meals, for example. "They'd get into the car and have huge smiles on their faces," she says. With the help of the camp counselors, Priscilla realized there were better ways to keep her girls happy. And the triplets had frank discussions about what they needed to lose and the habits they would have to change. "The staff helped us get on the same page nutritionally and mentally," says Priscilla.
Improving communication should be a top priority for spouses as well, says Zucker. Dieters assume that others know what sort of support to give—and often end up disappointed and frustrated when they don't get it. "Be specific in terms of what you really need," says Zucker. For some women, that may mean asking a spouse to do the grocery shopping—and making sure he buys plenty of fruit and vegetables, not corn dogs and cupcakes. Other women may be more in need of emotional support. Simply hearing the words "Honey, I know how hard this is—and I'm proud of you" can make all the difference.
The Marquards' time at Pritikin was a success. Priscilla managed to lose 16 pounds; three years later, she has kept the weight off. Audrey arrived at camp weighing 106 pounds; despite a six-inch growth spurt, she is now a trim 102 pounds. As a result of the program, Caroline lost 15 pounds. Philipp also benefited from the lessons Priscilla and the girls learned: He has shed 60 pounds through diet and exercise.
The Marquards' experience demonstrates the best way to lose weight is together. Today the Happy Meals and potato chips after school are a distant memory. "Now it's fruit and more fruit," says Priscilla. "And nobody turns their nose up and says, 'Oh, gosh, what's that?'"