Creating a Family Culture of Healthy Eating, One Step at a Time

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By: Laura Plunkett

Several years ago, my husband Brian and my son Danny were eating atthe Food Court of a local mall. "Dad, when someone gets three wishes from the genie in the lamp, whydon't they just wish for more wishes?" Danny asked. 

"Well, if you had three wishes, what would you wish for?"

"I don't know. I pretty much have everything I want."

"Well, the first thing I'd wish for is that you didn't have type 1diabetes anymore."

Danny looked down at the teriyaki chicken and veggies on his plateand brightened, "Diabetes isn't so bad. It hasn't changed thingsthat much. Look, it's got us eating healthier food. Otherwise, I'dbe eating French fries!"

This was the moment that my husband and I realized that theindoctrination of our ten-year-old son was complete. When diagnosedwith Type 1 diabetes at the age of seven, Danny's entire list ofacceptable foods was Annie's macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese,French fries, Cheerios, juice, and dessert. Occasionally he wouldconsider some fruit or a slice of cucumber. Now, here he was,surrounded by fast-food outlets, and all he wanted was teriyakichicken with vegetables.

Recently a friend who was eating dinner with our family commented,"You seem to have your own family culture." I knew what she meant.Danny, now thirteen, and his sixteen-year-old sister Jess are ascommitted to our whole foods complex-carbohydrate diet as we are. That night the kids actually thanked me for a meal of steak tips,green beans and spinach salad that five years earlier neither childwould have touched.

Now they enjoy sprouted grain bread, everyvegetable and a wide range of protein, and more importantly, knowwhy they are eating it. As my friend left that evening, she askedme, "How did you get your kids to eat like that?"

The truth isn't pretty. It's taken years of concentrated effort,which started when we realized that the foods Danny preferred beforehis diagnosis were sending him on a blood sugar roller coaster ride.When you have a child with an autoimmune disorder, you want toprovide him with the healthiest diet possible. I learned thatcomplex-carbohydrates created smaller blood sugar swings than simpleones. The foods we were eating for their high nutritional value alsogave him better blood sugar control.

This was the start of many tearful meals – sometimes my tears – asDanny, and occasionally his sister, rejected the healthier foods Ioffered. It became clear that I wasn't going to be able to force thekids to change. In order to convince my children that they mightactually love healthy food, Brian and I had to resort to thefollowing strategies.

1. Family meetings around the dinner table

One of the first changes was that we established family meetings. Wedidn't call them that. We just refused to let the kids be excusedearly from the dinner table. I would mention that the processing ofwhite flour removed one hundred nutrients from the original wholewheat and that a few synthetic replacements were added to call itenriched.

Then I'd present the problem: "How do you think we couldeat more whole wheat bread?" and wait . . . until invariably Jess orDan would pipe up with, "Could we disguise it in French toast?" or"I'd try the kind of bread my teacher eats." These conversationsgave the kids choices and made them an integral part of our team.

2. Clear reasons for making the changes

I didn't want to blame diabetes for our changes in diet. Yes, wewere aiming for better blood sugar control, but it was clear to mewe needed better overall health in our family. We had had many coldsand flus each winter, and additional fruits and vegetables wouldgive us more of the vitamins and minerals we needed. We were anactive family, and protein, healthy fats, and whole grains wouldmore fully nourish our bodies.

We all had high and low energyswings, and nutritionists said that complex-carbohydrates helpedavoid mood swings and the crash that came after eating a bagel.These would be permanent changes, not only for Danny, but also forthe overall health and well-being of every member of our family.

3. Giving information without preaching

In all our comments, Brian and I emphasized to Jess and Dan that wewere sharing information, trying to educate them as we learned moreourselves. One day, I heard Brian reading to the kids from ConsumerReports magazine, "Listen to this! Can you believe that every DunkinDonuts cookie has 1/4 cup of sugar and 14 to 29 grams of fat?" Thekids were shocked.

Although they were young, it was easy to explainthe long-term benefits of eating nutritionally rich foods, theeffects of fats and proteins on blood sugar, and the differencebetween simple and complex carbohydrates.

Brian and I found a nutritional video that we thought was worthviewing, but I knew it would be hopeless to say, "Hey, do you wantto watch an educational video with Mom and Dad?" Instead, we settledonto the couch and started the DVD in the same room where both kidswere doing homework.

Usually, there is no television during homeworktime, so it didn't take long for both kids to look up and watchcovertly. They were delighted that they were getting away withsomething. Later, they actually went into the kitchen and startedlooking at the labels on the food. "Wow, did you know these crackersaren't really 100% whole wheat?" and "This sugar-free syrup hasaspartame in it."

4. Reviewing the effects of choices

We didn't want to establish rules or create a struggle over whocontrolled what anyone ate. Although we gradually purged our houseof white flour, white sugar, and white rice, when we were eatingout, we never refused Danny food he wanted. Our mantra was"Everything in moderation."

One night, Danny ordered a hamburger andfries at a restaurant and returned home feeling sick, with a bloodsugar number of 350. The next morning, I reminded him of how badhe'd felt and we brainstormed. He decided that next time he'd tryhaving only half the roll and substitute vegetables for the fries.Eventually, he decided on his own to forego the roll altogether.

On another occasion, a neighbor had sent over a large bowl full ofapple crisp sweetened with sugar. Danny had it for breakfast twomornings in a row. Both days at 10 a.m., I got a call from theschool nurse because his blood sugars were so high. The secondafternoon, I sat him down. "You've had apple crisp for breakfast forthe last two days. Let's look at the effect on your blood sugars."After looking at the numbers, he went to the refrigerator and threwthe rest out.

5. Creating a culture

It is easy to feel isolated when you eat differently. There havebeen many times when our family has been invited to an event whereour only choices were chips, white flour crackers and cheese, pizza,and dessert. We have learned to eat ahead of time or to volunteer tobring a salad or a vegetable platter. More importantly, we havelearned about solidarity and the need to plan together before we getinto those situations.

I want our kids to know they are not alone. Each time I run intopeople who tell me about how dietary changes are making them feelbetter, I add it to the dinner conversation. When an organic rawfood restaurant opened in a nearby town, I talked to the kids abouthow popular it was. When neighborhood kids polished off the wholewheat, maple-syrup-sweetened cookies I served, I pointed it out.When we are in a bookstore, we look at the many cookbooks availableon whole foods nutrition.

6. Enjoying the results

Recently, my daughter, now sixteen, joined me for a talk I gave atthe Juvenile Diabetes Symposium at the University of California, SanFrancisco. During the breakout session, a mother asked, "Don't yourkids binge when they go to friends' houses or out by themselves?Doesn't restricting their food choices create eating disorders?" Iturned the question over to Jess.

"Well, I can still eat what Iwant," she started, "but when I go out with my friends they usuallyhave pizza, Coke and an ice cream. Why would I do that to my body?I'd feel gross afterwards. I might have a slice of pizza and asalad, or a salad and an ice cream, but I would never eat all thatjunk. I like how I feel and how I look when I eat this way."

Jess is proud of her clear skin, her long glossy hair, her strongwhite teeth, and her slim figure. Danny's A1c's have been between6.2 and 7.1 for the five years we have been eating this way. He wasthe only child on his soccer team to test at the highest level ofendurance during his team trials. Both kids can see that eating wellhas made an important contribution to their looking good andperforming well, highly important attributes to adolescents.

Brianand I are also happy that our forty-year-old waists are notspreading and that we still enjoy high energy levels. Seeingtangible results reinforces the eating program we've established asa family, which, as strange as it seems, no longer feels to any ofus like self-denial or deprivation.

Now, if I could have three wishes, what would they be? I wish I knewin the beginning that food choices make such a big difference toblood sugar control and overall health. I wish I knew that we wouldget through the tears and struggles to a better place. And I wishthe lessons we learned will give other families the inspiration toeat healthier and feel better. May it be so.

These tips are drawn from the book, “The Challenge of ChildhoodDiabetes: Family Strategies for Raising a Healthy Child”, by LauraPlunkett and Linda Weltner, written to help parents support theirchild’s overall health and well-being. For additionalstrategies and information, go to www.challengeofdiabetes.com.

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