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Science / Medicine : Parents Stymied by Diets

October 24, 1988|Anne C. Roark | Times staff writer Anne C. Roark reports from San Francisco at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual meeting

Breast milk, pediatricians agree, is by far the best food a mother can give her newborn. But what of the older child--the one who prefers cheeseburgers and chocolate-covered candy bars to steamed vegetables and plain yogurt? What is a mother--or father--to do when they begin to lose control of what their children eat?

Noting that obesity in American children has increased a startling 54% in the last 15 years and that an estimated 80% of American youths spend their teen-age years dieting, Lucy Scott of the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley, has concluded that American culture has "a troubled relationship to food that is not just a small, isolated phenomenon."

Ambivalence about food is particularly true for many working mothers who want to nurture their children as their mothers and grandmothers did but who have neither the time nor the inclination to don an apron on a daily basis. Older parents, those who delayed having children until their 30s and 40s, are also more inclined to worry about food--along with everything else about their children, from their popularity on the playground to their likelihood of getting into Harvard.

Increasingly, Scott said, there is clinical evidence that parents are taking these ambivalences and anxieties to the dinner table. They give mixed signals about food, simultaneously, for example, insisting that their children clean their plates while warning them not to eat too much.

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