Helping Children Develop a Healthy Relationship to Food & Their Bodies in a Diet Obsessed Culture - PART ONE
One of the most common sentiments I hear from women when talking about food and body image is that they, in no uncertain terms, DO NOT want their children to grow up with the same anxiety, preoccupation and sometimes deep pain that they had ( and often still have) around their body and food. The tide may be turning slightly these days around body diversity…..but most women of a certain age that I know simply grew up in a diet obsessed, thinness obsessed culture. That is simply hard to shake, for most, it is part of the fabric of who we are.
So can we, despite our own wounds, and the continued cultural climate around perfectionistic health rules help our kids develop a sense of ease around food and their bodies? Absolutely! This does require some very intentional thought, patience and practice. This is one of a series of blog posts that I will be writing on how to move in this direction with any child so they can have a sense of well being around food.
First, what does a competent eater look like? This is not exactly the same as “healthy” eaters. Eating perfectly should not be the goal. We often get caught up in the play by play of every eating episode and forget to keep the long game in mind. You are a guide for your child, not just a “rule maker”. We want kids to be now and always, without our direction:
Comfortable around all foods
Free from worry about eating
Understand how to nourish themselves
Able to navigate a complicated food environment
Able to regulate their own eating
All while giving FULL acceptance to the bodies that our children have
Seems pretty reasonable, right? How do we get there? It can be layered but here are some things to start thinking about.
What kind of interference might be going when your child eats? Examples of interference:
“Clean Plate Club” - When we praise kids for finishing all of the food on the plate, we are beginning to set the stage for them to ignore hunger and fullness cues that we are all born with. These very natural cues are our bodies way of regulating food intake. As we get older these natural cues can erode for lots of reasons but often start by well intentioned parents and caregivers that simply want to make sure their child is eating enough. What we sometimes forget is that how much we need day to day fluctuates due to many factors and the amount of food WE think a child needs, may or may not be accurate.
What to do: Let them decide. When a child is served food, let the child have control over how much of that food they will eat. Ask questions like how food feels in their tummy….this starts gets kids in touch with their own body cues so they know they can trust their body to tell them what they need. If a child eats very little at breakfast, let’s say, you may want to point out how that makes them feel when they start getting cranky or hungry soon after or on the flip side, if they eat way past fullness you may want to ask similar questions and that is based on simple observation rather than in judgment...it is important to start to help them make the connection between how much and type of food eaten and how it affects them physically, emotionally, etc…. This will eventually help them sharpen this skill and regulate their food appropriately.
Praising, reminders or cajoling to eat things like veggies or some other food first on the plate. The problem here is that we are creating “people pleasers”. If Jimmy notices that when he eats all of his food, or food he does not like, regardless if he is full or not, he makes mommy or daddy happy. This will enforce the behavior, remove the autonomy from the child and the hunger and fullness cues start to become blunted. The research clearly shows that when parents promote consumption of a particular food, this makes the child less likely to eat that food later in life and more picky and rebellious. Bottom line, it does exactly the opposite of what we want it to do. This also starts to promote the idea of “good” and “bad” foods. Over time when a child is eating a lot of what is perceived as a “bad” food it can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. (sound familiar? Remember, we are trying to break the cycle here).
What to do: Again, let the child dictate how much of each food they will eat and in what order. Don’t underestimate just one bite or two of any food. Children are building a palate and simply do not need the same amount of nutrients as we do as adults. Respect food preferences. Eventually things will balance out, look at the big picture. Remember: One meal/day or even week is not going to impact a person's health in the long run. This can help alleviate some of the stress and pressure around one eating episode
Restricting certain types and amounts of foods. This is really hard. I think this is the one where we may, as parents, need to sit on our hands and zip our mouths sometimes for the greater good. Do not misunderstand, this does not mean free reign to eat whatever foods a child wants whenever they want by any means, BUT the research is clear here: Restriction of food can lead to over consuming that very food, especially when away from home as well as hiding food. Restriction can lead to eating in the absence of hunger and past the point of fullness, eating in response to emotional reasons & obsession with that food. Restricted children eat more quantity and feel worse about their eating, they are ashamed of eating what their parents don’t want them to eat. This leaves them ill-equipped to cope with the broader food environment & have a higher risk of becoming overweight. So you may never want their lips to touch soda, or you may think pasta is the devil or they have had one too many cookies…...but these potential outcomes are clearly more harmful than any one of these things. Again, keep the long game in mind.
What to do: Use strategies, like having structured meals and snacks, try to refrain from grazing and eating in front of a screen with any regularity. When eating foods that are more loaded, try to bring some mindfulness to the eating experience. Sit down, pay attention, ask your child if they like the taste, how it tastes, etc. Incorporate these foods into a well rounded meal or snack, part of the objective here is that you are normalizing all foods, not putting any on a pedestal or the opposite. Also, when a child, or anyone for that matter, is starving and they want chips, cookies, etc. it is normal to overeat these foods. When given in the context of a meal or well rounded snack, it is more more balanced.
More to come on this very big topic...but just something to start thinking about. The most important starting point here is to take a step back and examine our own beliefs/intentions/fears and anxiety around food and bodies and how that may be helping our children or potentially harming and how can we move forward. Let me know what questions you may have on this topic, would love to hear from you.