Interview with Dr. Natalie Muth
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is a community pediatrician and registered dietitian widely recognized for her expertise in childhood obesity, nutrition, and fitness. Her book Eat Your Vegetables! and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters was released in May 2012.
What Dr. Natalie has to say about Raising Healthy Eaters
When today’s adults look back at their childhood, they may remember playing ball, climbing trees, and generally causing mischief outside with friends until their mom called them in for dinner. Now, you could drive through comfortable suburban neig
hborhoods on a sunny and cool fall day and not find a kid in sight. But, of course, the drive-through line at any given fast-food place will be packed. And if you listen carefully, you may hear the noise of a blaring TV through open windows. What happened?
Kids these days spend more time in front of electronic media, such as the TV, computer screen, and phone, than they spend in school. Even our youngest children are bombarded with appealing advertising to buy more and eat more. Of course, a life of inactivity and wasted time isn’t true for all kids. “The generation of ‘solution-focused,’ ‘results-driven,’ thrusting adults has created a performance-measured world where children can’t ‘just play’—they must have ‘structured activities’ … where they cannot just daydream and fantasize … where even fetuses in utero must have their potential maximized, …” researcher Philip Darbyshire points out in an article on the death of childhood.1 Society pressures parents to push their kids even harder at even younger ages in the pursuit of the per
fect child with the perfect level of measured success. As any parent quickly recognizes, childhood today is different from how it was 20 or 30 years ago. But it doesn’t have to be worse.
Just as childhood should be fun, parenting is also supposed to be fun—despite its accompanying demands, stresses, mistakes, and disappointments. Parents have an incredible opportunity to teach their children about the wonders and amazement that the world has to offer. While this role extends far beyond shaping kids’ health habits, you can make eating healthy and being physically active fun and exciting. Seize these opportunities to teach your kids a little bit about the world and spend quality time together while also fostering lifelong healthy habits and attitudes.
Plant a small garden and teach your children how to use what you grow to make delicious recipes. Take the children to a farmers’ market and let them pick out a new vegetable or fruit to try at home. Go on a pretend “trip around the world” by learning about va
rious countries and then prepare traditional meals from some of those countries. Once per month, make dinner a festive celebration by having the kids decorate and be responsible for serving the hors d’oeuvres of their choice.
However you decide to do it and whatever approach you take, consider evaluating your priorities, goals, and commitments to your children. You may reach the conclusion that it’s really not all that important if they eat a vegetable at every meal; clean their plate of all the food you offer; or sometimes splurge on ice cream, cookies, or junk food. But it’s important that they regularly be offered fresh and wholesome foods and have fruits and vegetables readily accessible should they choose to eat them; that they learn to let their bodies tell them when they’re hungry and when they’re full; that they learn how to critically evaluate and be skeptical of marketing gimmicks and ads that try to persuade them; that they have frequent opportunities to move their bodies, run around, and just play; that at each step of the way, they have a loving adult at their side to teach them what it means and what it looks like to be healthy, have a healthy relationship with food, and still have a bit of fun along the way.
It is not so much about what your child eats but more about your approach—the consistent, persistent, and predictable decisions you make each day that shows your children what healthy looks like—the choices that give your kids a fun, stimulating, and full childhood. The goal is that one day, when you least expect it, you find that your picky, don’t-give-me-that-green-thing, hate-to-play-outside child has suddenly grown up into a healthy, active, well-adjusted young adult. And then you may look back and be glad you didn’t insist “Eat your vegetables!” or fall for some of the other mistakes that parents unwittingly make.
Here are The 10 “Power Ps” for how to get rid of the mealtime battles and raise healthier eaters:
- Packaging. Borrow the tricks of the multi-billion-dollar food industry and creatively package and “brand” healthy foods. An appealingly decorated or snazzy-named snack can transform a rejected food into a food a picky child will at least try. As one Cornell study showed, a quick name change from drab “peas” to snazzy “power peas” doubled children’s pea consumption.2
- Parenting. Taking an authoritative parenting approach in which you set boundaries and guidelines for your children but they’re given the freedom to make choices within those guidelines helps you to raise the most well-adjusted and overall healthy children. Put this to practice at mealtimes, when you determine what types of foods are prepared and the children decide what and how much to eat.
- Psychology. Always remember that your kids have minds of their own (as if you could forget!) and they’ll resist overt coercion. A power struggle with a strong-willed child is an unpleasant experience to be avoided whenever possible. You’re better off creating situations in which your child is given the opportunity to choose between equally healthy options. You get what you want (after all, you’re the one who decided his choice options) and your child gets what he wants (the opportunity to exert a little control).
- Physiology. The human body needs certain vitamins and nutrients for optimal health and well-being, while other foodstuffs are needed only in small amounts (or occasionally not at all). Take advantage of opportunities to teach your children what’s healthy for their growing bodies and why you keep reminding them to drink three glasses of milk per day or ask them to consider giving the iron-rich, dark green veggies a try.
- Practice. Unfortunately, these strategies won’t turn your picky eater into an adventurous food connoisseur overnight. And you may not intuitively be inclined to ignore the fact that your two-year-old blatantly refuses to eat anything you have put on his plate, although that’s what I recommend. In order for these strategies to work, you’ve got to practice using them—day in and day out.
- Persistence. Despite urges to give in to the unnerving whining, begging, pleading, and screaming, to get the results you want (active and healthy children), you have to be persistent and consistent. Not reinforcing the negative behavior will extinguish it.
- Peers. Never underestimate the power of peer influence for your kids and for you. Your child’s friends can make or break your efforts to get him to eat healthier. At the same time, teams of parents working together to make lasting changes in their kids are most likely to be successful in their efforts (and may even encourage each other to step up their own nutrition and exercise plans).
- Price. When the frustration overwhelms and the desire to just give in and forget about it increases, remember the high price of being overweight—a condition affecting more than one-third of children today. Even if your child isn’t even close to being overweight right now, he’s got a decent chance of being overweight in the future if he doesn’t adopt healthy nutrition and activity habits in childhood. (Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese.)
- Payback. The strategies and tips recommended in this book require persistence and patience, but ultimately, if applied consistently and effectively, they’ll give you the payback you envision—well-rounded, healthy, active children with a firm grasp of how to take care of their bodies.
- Pep talk. You’re not in this alone. Generations of parents have struggled to figure out the best way to feed their children. Don’t go it alone. Open the conversation with your friends. Together, you can encourage, strategize, and rejuvenate to end the food fight once and for all.
Excerpt from “Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters (Healthy Learning, 2012) by Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD
Natalie’s own personal struggle with childhood obesity served as impetus to adopt a heart-felt personal mission to devote all efforts to combating childhood obesity. And that especially includes helping kids to prevent it from happening in the first place.
She actively strives to end childhood obesity and improve nutrition habits through her involvement in the community. As Senior Health Strategist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the largest fitness certifying and advocacy organization in the country, she informs media outlets throughout the country on pertinent nutrition and fitness issues. Together, she and fellow pediatricians Mary Saph Tanaka and Kim Peterson developed “The Little Chef Cooking School”, a four-session program which helps parents and their 5- to 10-year-old children have fun as a family making delicious health foods that they can easily re-create at home. She also developed a school-based nutrition and physical activity program implemented in elementary schools. She has served as coach and member of the Board of Directors of Girls on the Run of the Triangle, a program that uses running to teach girls ages 8 to 12 life skills and healthy living. She also is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and certified personal trainer and fitness instructor.
Having recently completed her training in pediatrics at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, Dr. Muth is practicing as a community pediatrician at Pediatric Medical Associates in Vista, CA, a diverse community just north of San Diego.
The author of over 50 publications and book chapters (including the winner of the Maggie Award for her article “Shaping a healthier future for America’s children” in IDEA Fitness Journal), Natalie is a sought after pediatric expert by the media. She has appeared on ABC World News Now; is a regular guest on San Diego Living; and has been quoted in multiple print and online outlets including The New York Times.
She lives in Carlsbad, CA with her husband and two children, Tommy and Mariella.