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Introducing Dr. Katja Rowell: A 5-part series

Love Me, Feed Me!This is the start of a 5-part interview series with Dr. Katja Rowell whose consulting service, The Feeding Doctor, focuses on helping families learn about healthy, happy eating. Finding non-alarmist nutrition information for kids is a challenge and her commonsense, respectful approach has been a huge boon to me.  I asked her if she’d let me interview her and not only did she say yes but she gave me SO MUCH information back that I have enough to share across the next five weeks. Be sure to become a The Feeding Doctor fan on facebook and check out her new book, Love Me, Feed Me! now available at Amazon.

Katja Rowell, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Michigan medical school and served as a family physician in urban and rural clinics and at a university student health service. She was struck by the prevalence of disordered eating and feeding and related health problems. Rowell believes establishing a healthy feeding relationship– in essence– the HOW children are fed is the missing piece in addressing disordered eating, childhood overweight and damaging dieting behaviors.

Without further ado, here’s the first part of the 5-part series speaking with a nutritionist who has no desire to scare the heck out of you, demonize food or force-feed you guilt in the guise of education.

Your blog was originally called Family Feeding Dynamics. Can you talk more about how you came up with this name and what it means?

Feeding dynamics is the name of Ellyn Satter‘s feeding model with children. It transformed first my own family’s experience around food, and then was the major impetus for my career shift from traditional family doctor to a childhood feeding specialist.

I wanted to celebrate that link with Satter’s feeding model, but also stress the family aspect. To stress that families teach kids how to eat. Family meals matter. The word dynamic also recognizes that feeding our families is a dynamic process, meaning it is flexible and changes with your family. For example, I had a hard time cooking the kinds of meals I thought I “should” during stressful times, whether we were moving, health reasons, or just being overwhelmed with the needs of an active infant and an over-worked partner. I relied more on take-out or pre-prepped meals at the time, but I “forgave” myself, meaning I let go of the guilt. I think that positive attitude helped me get back to feeling good about cooking more regularly again. So much changes with kids – their tastes, different feeding challenges depending in your child’s temperament and developmental stage, or your home situation with jobs, schedules etc. So you might eat dinner at 5:30 when your child is younger, but change to a seven p.m. dinner when your child starts after-school activities. It’s about being flexible, forgiving, fluid, and dynamic with your approach to doing your job with feeding.

What are the most significant barriers you see in the way of parents helping kids learn healthy eating?

popsicle-insideTime is probably a major factor for most families I work with. Money and access to a variety of foods is an issue for too many Americans as well. I read somewhere that for a families in the “lower middle class” range, that eating the way the food pyramid recommends would take about 70% of their income. So, for many families, food insecurity, and money is an issue.

Another barrier I commonly see is picky eating and the power struggles around that issue- which in most cases is a result of feeding decisions in the past or feeding patterns. Fundamentally most parents (and health care providers) also don’t understand normal growth and normal eating habits. Parents of big kids worry that their children will be fat, parents of small kids feel judged or worry that their child is not healthy or will grow up to be small. Out of this concern and misunderstanding comes this urgent sense of “We have to do something!” and unfortunately that “something” usually means feeding with pressure-feeding to try to control size and that often backfires. That kid who gets pushed to eat more will eat less, that kid who is being restricted often then gets obsessed with food and you might start to see weight increase more rapidly. We have lost a sense of trusting that kids can and will grow to a body that is right for them if we do our job with feeding. Another barrier is that lots of parents I work with don’t know how to cook basic food and feel overwhelmed by shopping, meal planning and cooking. It’s part of why my blog focuses on meal-planning and recipes as well as research and topical subjects.

What do you mean by “jobs with feeding?”

It boils down to what is called the Division of Responsibility with feeding which is Satter’s main notion and recognized by the American Dietetic Association as “perhaps the best way to feed children.” The person feeding the child decides what, when and where the kid eats, the child decides if and how much. It sounds easy, but it is not the norm in how we feed kids as a culture. Think about the kid who is forced to eat two bites of meat before he earns dessert, or the child who has to finish a serving of vegetables before he can have more meat, or the child who is cut off after one serving of pasta. This is typical, and to many the badge of good parenting and feeding, but it is doing the child’s job-which is letting them tune in to their bodies and to decide how much of something to eat. As a mom, I plan the meals and snacks and I provide a variety of foods from the basic food groups, and I provide a pleasant setting, Then my job is done. My child’s job is to show up, be pleasant and decide how much or if she eats. It is hard work planning and providing snacks and meals with fat, protein and carb. It is not sexy, it is not easily sold or taught in a sound-bite format. But, it is pleasant. I don’t have fights or negotiations at my table, and the families I work with tell me things like, “I can look forward to dinner again,” or “I get to be a mom, not a food cop” and you know what? Their kids eat a better variety and get better nutrition too. It’s one thing to see the research on feeding, but it’s another to see it work in my home and with my clients. I love what I do. To me this is very powerful preventive medicine. If a kid can grow up with a healthy relationship to food and her body-what a gift, what a head start in terms of health.

(Stay Tuned for Part 2 next week!)

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