November 19, 2014 -U.S. News & World Report -Yahoo –
Don’t leave the house for the day without a game plan for meals and snacks. A toddler wouldn’t. (Photo by Getty Images).
Most folks who were fortunate enough to have a reasonably happy childhood look back at that time of life with great nostalgia. To many, early childhood represents a period of life where there was beauty in simplicity – a happy time before life became so complicated, so fraught with stress and worry, so busy.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether some of the complexity we adults face is self-imposed – particularly as it pertains to our health. In fact, when I reflect on who my healthiest patients are, I notice they tend to have one thing in common: They live a lot like my kids did during toddlerhood. Here’s how:
Toddlers don’t leave the house for the day without a game plan for meals and snacks. Look into the purse of any toddler parent, and chances are you’ll find a filled water bottle, a banana, Ziploc baggies loaded with baby carrots, cheese cubes and maybe some crackers or a PB&J. In addition to the loaded purse, toddler parents generally know where they’ll be for lunch that day – and very often, even what they’re going to eat. That’s because no parent in his or her right mind wants to get caught out and about with a hangry toddler in tow – or find themselves without a game plan when the lunch hour rolls around.
At some point in adulthood, though, we abandon the practice of planning our food for the day in advance – and as a result, we’re at the mercy of whatever vending machine, quick-service food establishment or coffee shop bakery case we encounter when hunger creeps up on us. And yet, we all know precisely at what time our tummy is going to grumble – for a mid-morning snack, for lunch, for an afternoon snack. Why on earth don’t we plan for it? Whether you choose to pack your own lunch or snacks, plan to pick some up on your way to work or simply decide in advance where you’ll be when hunger strikes, thinking ahead helps you best control what goes into your mouth. And it’s far easier to make a good choice when you’re not starving than when you are.
Toddlers stop eating when they’re full. One of the strangest observations I’ve made when watching my own children eat was seeing my young daughter stop eating midway through a small chocolate macaron. With half a cookie left, shesimply put it down on the table, declared that she was finished and moved on to the next playtime activity on her preschool agenda. Since that time, I’ve seen both my kids walk away mid-slice from favorite treats such as birthday cake or pizza – and, albeit less surprisingly, from typical family dinners when even a favorite food was being served. They just weren’t hungry anymore.
Indeed, before influences such as parental feeding practices, food advertising and portion distortion have the chance to influence them too significantly, young children are typically very good at self-regulating their intake to meet their needs. The instinct to self-regulate in this manner is pretty hard to relate to as an adult living in America, but it’s actually not impossible to recreate with some deliberate behavioral interventions.
I won’t even try to pass myself off as someone who has enough self-restraint to similarly stop eating the last bite of a cookie, but I can say I’ve come a long way in terms of stopping with meals well before I feel stuffed. I started to make progress in my 20s, when I dated a willowy young professor whose lean years as a grad student had trained him well in the practice of saving leftovers for another day. While our romantic relationship ended, its legacy lives on to this day in my enthusiasm for requesting that my server box up even the smallest vestiges of my restaurant meal that, if consumed, would push me over the edge from satisfied to comatose. And at home, I’ve cultivated an enviable Tupperware collection to accommodate leftovers in all volumes, shapes and sizes to the same effect. For me, it’s all come down to shifting my mindset from “this tastes so good I just want to keep eating it even though I’m full” to “this tastes so good that if I stop now, I can enjoy the leftovers again tomorrow for lunch.”
Toddlers invented interval training. In our family, we joke that my almost 4-year-old son still doesn’t know how to walk. Rather, he has two modes: standing still or running. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time with a little person knows they’re prone to constant bursts of energy and activity, punctuated by a brief lull while they contemplate their next move. Why stroll when sprinting will do? Why wait for the elevator when there’s a giant stairwell to scramble up, skipping steps along the way just for sport?
We adults tend to reserve this type of behavior for the gym only, and even then only when under the supervision of a personal trainer egging us on to push ourselves. But opportunity for heart-healthy bursts of cardio activity present themselves daily if you’re open to them, and they can add up in terms of calories burned and fitness conditioning. A very small recent study has even shown cardiovascular benefits associated with one minute of daily, super intense activity just three times per week among obese participants.
So why not race up the stairs adjacent to the escalator during your morning commute or dash into the stairwell when the elevator arrives at work to see if you can beat it up to your intended floor? Why not jog to the stop sign on alternating blocks as you walk to work? Why not jump over every white line in the parking lot as you head into the mall or grocery store? A toddler would.