By Lara Field, MS, RDN, Owner/Founder FEED Nutrition Consulting
I had my first breakup when I was nine. No, I didn’t get dumped during recess, nor was there any sort of love note involved. I even walked away from the table, so to speak, entirely unscathed. But opting for salad over steak can do that to a person.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1980s, our family meals were paramount. I was busy with after-school activities, but never busy enough to miss meals, all of which we ate at home with the family. Some of my favorite family meals were tuna noodle casserole, meatloaf (real beef, never turkey) with mashed potatoes, and fried chicken (with the skin on, of course). We indulged ourselves by going out to eat every so often as well as helping ourselves to the occasional ice cream or sugary treat. I never truly overindulged, and I can’t remember consciously thinking about food very often.
Then, there came cholesterol.
When I was nine, my dad had a routine appointment with his internist that changed his life forever. He was told that he had two options: change his diet or die an early death. Perhaps the news wasn’t put quite as harshly as that, but my dad took it to heart (though there were thankfully no heart operations). My dad’s father and grandfather both had passed away from heart disease when they were in their fifties. The realization that he had to change his ways or face the same fate was a big wake-up call — for him and our family.
If it weren’t for my dad’s struggle with cholesterol, I truly believe I wouldn’t be who I am today. Once informed of his risk for heart disease, my dad learned everything he could about lowering that risk. He bought at least ten diet books, learned how to cook, read nutrition labels, quit smoking, and started exercising. It was his mission to take control of his health, and he took me under his wing to learn along with him.
I was an average girl with an average appetite. I never had a weight problem or high cholesterol, but my dad’s new health habits were making a huge impression on me. Moreover, I was fascinated by the changes we were making as a family.
I will never forget the time I went to one of my friend’s houses after school for a play date. My friend’s mom was a caterer known for her amazing pastries. It was a treat to go to her house after school, and I always looked forward to what she would serve. Until cholesterol, that is.
One day, when offered a delicious chocolate brownie, I decided to put my new health habits to good use. It took all my strength, but I muttered the words, “No, thank you, I would like some grapes instead, please.” I remember thinking to myself even while I said it, “Who are you kidding? You know you want a brownie!” Of course it wasn’t fun, but I was taking ownership of my own health, just like my dad was doing. The days before cholesterol, or “B.C.” as we affectionately call it now, were over.
I went on to earn my bachelor’s in science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before studying for my master’s in clinical nutrition at Rush University Medical Center. I loved learning about nutrition and loved sharing my accruing knowledge with my dad even more. To this day, we still share nutrition tidbits and recipes to better our health together.
As a registered dietitian, I am fascinated by my career. The science is always developing, and we are continuing to learn more about how what we eat affects our health. And like it or not, the media is obsessed with the topic of nutrition. Who is eating what and why we need to eat this rather than that is constantly making the news. As a dietitian, it is my job to clarify misconceptions about what we put in our bodies and whether something helps or hurts us.
Still, it wasn’t until I had my first child that I was able to confirm through experience what I had been learning in books. Yes, I was trained by some of the top nutrition professionals in the best programs in the country, but I really needed to undergo pregnancy and motherhood myself to truly come full circle in my career.
As a dietitian specializing in pediatrics, I counsel other parents about picky eating, food allergy management, obesity, and starting their kids on solid food. But my children have taught me a lot about nutrition as well. I’ve learned how to be patient, when to give in and when to say no, and — most importantly — how satisfying it is to see my children absorb the principles I teach in my career. Some parents may not think twice about it, but when my child says the words “More broccoli, please,” it fills my heart with joy.
My own kids’ joy in eating healthy food demonstrates the power and purpose of my mission: Feed your kids well while leading by example. Teach them what to eat, and they will decide how much is right for them. Provide good options at home, and they will embrace them.
My breakup occurred at an early age. As most people say after the fact, it was tough going through it but for the best in the end. I am thankful every day that unhealthy eating and I parted ways.
This article was originally featured in parenting resource - Families in the Loop, 2012.