Diabetes Forecast

Healthy Eating for the Whole Family

Get your loved ones to change their habits without causing a feud

By Tracey Neithercott , ,

Kids who demand cookies. Spouses who chow down on Doritos. Grandparents who insist on serving favorite butter- and sugar-laden recipes. They may be your loved ones, but when it comes to healthy eating, family members can also be your enemies. If you have diabetes and cook for your family, sticking to your meal plan while catering to their personal likes and dislikes can make dinner feel more like a war between opposing food factions than a time to slow down and catch up. Not only that, but cooking indulgent meals for others while you eat something considerably less appealing is flat-out depressing.

Cheese and Spinach Puff

That's why having family support—or giving it, if another family member has diabetes—is so important. "It makes it easier for the person with diabetes," says Mary Story, PhD, RD, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Healthy Eating Research program and professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. "You're not singling out that individual. . . . If you have high-sugar, high-calorie foods around, it really makes it difficult for the person with diabetes not to be eating those foods." The goal is to get your family to unite over a new way of eating.

Lay the Groundwork 

Having the right strategy is half the battle. Regardless of which family member has diabetes, the bottom line is that nutrition applies to everyone. "Everybody has to be careful because of carbohydrates and sugar," says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. "The diet that is healthy for everyone is going to be high in whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, and vegetables."

There are two ways to make the switch. The first is to simply lay down the law. In other words, tell your family, "This is the new normal." But make sure you're clear as to why everyone's eating habits have to change. "The first thing I try to do is say, 'It isn't one person's problem or one person's solution. The entire family will benefit,' " says Irene Alton, RD, a dietitian with West Side Community Health Services in St. Paul, Minn. You can also help other family members understand how isolating it is for a parent or child with diabetes to eat separate meals.

Orange and Walnut Salad

So what's the other way to alter your family's eating habits? Without telling them you're doing it. "Sometimes, the less said, the better," says Schwartz. She calls it "stealth health." Switch from whole milk or 2 percent to 1 percent or skim without telling the family. Buy fruit instead of junk food without asking permission. When questions arise, mention the importance of healthy eating, but don't dwell on it. "I find that if I say, 'Here, have some fruit,' it's less effective than if I just set it down and they eat it because it's there," she says. "If you can make changes without people noticing, then that's the best."

Regardless of how you handle the transition, make sure both you and your spouse stay on message for the sake of your children. A parent who doesn't follow the new rules undermines the whole family's plan.

Set Rules, but Go Easy

Food manufacturers concoct junk foods specifically so that the pleasure-seeking part of your brain will light up like a Christmas tree. "People are hardwired to like sweets and fats and salty things," says Story. She recommends keeping unhealthy foods out of the house completely. "If those things are around, no one will have the willpower to resist." The same goes for sugary drinks like soda, or juice that's not made from 100 percent fruit. Without the temptations staring you in the face, you and your family will have an easier time sticking to wholesome foods.

Herbed Snap Pea Toss

Planning meals in advance can help you ensure healthy dinners nightly—and to avoid resorting to takeout when 6 p.m. brings a lack of culinary inspiration. It's also a great way to get your kids—even teenagers—involved. Let them brainstorm meals. Highlight a vegetable of the week to add a different kind of interest to your dinner. Bring them to the grocery store to shop for nutritious foods. Involve them in the cooking. All of this gets children excited about eating.

Most important, the family should sit down to dinner together—with the television and cell phones off. That goes for adults, too. Dining without distractions can help you focus on the food and your appetite, and will make it easier to stop when you're full. Studies show that kids who eat dinner as a family have a more nutritious diet and are less likely to be obese. Aside from the fact that home-cooked meals are usually healthier than restaurant-prepared ones, eating a meal together builds cohesion in the family. "Food is obviously a huge part of our culture. It's a huge part of how families identify themselves," says Schwartz. "There's some value in having your own family food culture."

Winter Fruit With Cannoli Cream

Of course, there's a fine line between fostering healthy eating and ruling the dinner table like a tyrant. The latter might make your family resent their diet. "You're not saying they can't have these foods," says Story. "If you totally restrict them, it'll backfire." So, how do you keep out the junk without inadvertently driving your family toward it? Moderation. "We wouldn't have a lot of ice cream in the house, but we'd go out for ice cream," Story says of her family's way of avoiding unhealthy foods while still indulging. Schwartz's family gets one treat per day (about 200 calories each). "Let them choose and you're off the hook," she says. "You're not the bad guy."

Lead by Example

Even if you don't have diabetes, it's important that you join the healthy-eating journey with your family. It's much easier for a child with diabetes to stick to having only a sliver of cake when his parents aren't chowing down on a hunk. Adults with diabetes are more likely to pick a salad over pizza when their spouses do the same. And parents or grandparents are more likely to adjust time-honored eating habits when the rest of the family does, too.

"I saw a mom today who said, 'I just can't stand that diet pop, so I keep my own [regular soda]. But darned if those kids don't find it,' " says Alton. "You have to be committed and motivated enough to be the role model and do it yourself."

Reap the Benefits

Getting the whole family on board makes it easier for someone with diabetes to stay healthy. It breaks the isolation that comes with being the sole member whose plate doesn't include french fries, for one thing. But there's another positive effect: Everyone else can get healthier, too. By encouraging and teaching your family how to eat right, you become their support system. And, on the flip side, they become yours.



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