Addressing Childhood Obesity with the Division of Responsibility

By Lauren Larson, MS, RDN

With one in five children ages 6-19 considered obese (BMI > 95% for age), childhood obesity is likely affecting ourselves or someone we know. Children with obesity are at an increased risk of chronic health conditions and diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, and they may also remain obese into adulthood. Addressing childhood obesity is imperative for preventing serious health conditions in generations to come.

As a parent, you may be wondering, what can you do to manage your child’s weight? With diets being so prevalent these days, putting your child on a diet, and restricting their intake might be the first thing that comes to mind.
Unfortunately, research shows that restrictive feeding can actually be harmful, leading to overeating and sneaking food when the opportunity is there. What are we left to do?

Well, children have a natural ability to regulate their food intake, and the best thing we can do is to support, foster, and allow them opportunities to practice this. We have to trust in their ability to regulate on their own. It is the best way to set them up for success in the future.

To do this, I suggest implementing Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. The parent is responsible for what is available, when it is available, and where it is available. For example, the parent can decide, we’re having whole grain spaghetti, meat sauce, salad, mandarin oranges, and low-fat milk, and it will be served at 6:00 pm at the dinner table. Keeping the child’s food preferences in mind when planning meals can be helpful. Once the food is on the table, the parent’s work is done.

The child is then responsible for deciding whether they want to eat and how much. They can decide they’re going to only eat spaghetti and a few sips of milk, and they may even ask for seconds on the spaghetti, which is okay in this model. They can also choose not to eat. In this case, communicate to them when the next opportunity to eat is, and allow them to decide if they think they can make it without eating or not.

The idea is that over time, the child will eat to support the body that is right for them and they will learn to eat the food their parent’s eat. And, as parents, if we do our best have structured meal and snack times with healthy food offerings, we can feel that we are doing the best we can, and the rest is up to the child.

Another important part in childhood feeding is having regular, planned, and communicated treats or “fun” foods, like cookies, ice cream, and chips. The schedule and items offered is entirely up to the parent. This teaches the child that these foods are not restricted, they can be part of a balanced diet, and encourages them to self-regulate around these foods.

To learn more about Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility: http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/dor/divisionofresponsibilityinfeeding.php.