There are so many confusing messages about how to eat. It seems that every week there is a new “healthy eating plan” that is “cleaner” than the rest. They sound like breakthroughs, but most of them are diets in disguise. In the United States, the diet industry is a $60 billion industry. And the research shows that 96% of people who go on diets to lose weight will gain the weight back (often plus more), bringing them back to the next book, program, or product. The United States also has approximately 6 to 11 million people with eating disorders, and eating disorders are the number one killer of all psychiatric illnesses.
All of that said, in this culture, how do we raise children to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies? How do we prevent the suffering of eating disorders of all types: restrictive anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and all the variants in between?
1) Stop the Diet Talk
Ideally, be a parent that is not dieting. If you are, then try to keep it out of your child’s consciousness as much as you can. (Know that once they get older, this is nearly impossible.) Restrictive eating is not sustainable and it creates a cycle of struggle with food and body that can last a lifetime. Healthful, balanced eating is something that you may want your child to imitate, but if you are a chaotic eater who goes back and forth between restricting and overeating compulsively, your child will be learning how to regulate eating and appetite while watching you. Most of the clients that I work with who struggle with compulsive eating had dieting parents that they imitated or they were put on a diet at a young age by a well-meaning parent or medical professional. The greatest risk factor for struggling with weight as an adult is dieting in childhood and adolescence. Please don’t encourage it or demonstrate to your child how to do it.
2) Stop the Fat Shaming
Please consider letting go of the myth that we need to live up to the body shape that is the cultural favorite of the day. I’m going to specifically talk here about women, though I am aware that our cultural biases towards thinness and perfection do, indeed, affect persons of all genders. For ease of writing, I will use a binary distinction, “woman/female,” knowing well that gender is not a binary construct for many people.
Many non-Western cultures today view female fatness as a sign of health, wealth, and vitality. Before the 1800s, so did Americans. In colonial days in the U.S., the voluptuous figure was generally seen as more desirable. In the 1900s, we significantly shifted our aesthetic appreciation of women’s bodies, and the media began to show thin, lithe figures as the ideal. At the same time, the growing diet industry sold us the belief that we could do something to our bodies to live up to that thinner ideal. Feminist scholars highlight the rise of thinness and diet culture alongside the rise of women’s liberation. Many believed it to be a backlash and response to the emerging power and equality of women, feared by the patriarchal structure of society.
All genders are affected by a thin ideal and weight stigma. Making someone feel bad about their body size—even casual negative talk about fatness or larger bodies—is damaging to children of all sizes. Those in larger bodies will feel they are “less than” and those in smaller bodies will feel they will need to work harder to not be a part of that stigmatized group. We all suffer when we don’t accept our differences and instead place a moral judgment on body size. Don’t tolerate negative fat talk from your kids and please examine your own biases.
Furthermore, even well-meaning comments about weight to a child in a larger body go destructively deep and erode self-esteem. I hear about this childhood shame in the stories of so many of my clients who struggle with a challenging relationship with food for decades. Negative body thoughts (who doesn’t have them sometimes?) can go awry and become the foundation on which develops a terrible relationship with eating and fitness. For some, this may ultimately lead to an eating disorder. I invite you to reframe how you talk to yourself and your kids about body weight and shape.
3) Stay in Your Own Lane
Ellyn Satter, MSW, RDN introduced me to one of my favorite “rules” about how to feed children well. It’s about division of responsibility. Your responsibility as parents and caregivers is to provide a variety of nutritious food. Your child’s responsibility is to eat it. When we try to move into our kids’ lanes and “get” them to eat certain things (or not eat certain things) by coercion, reward, cooking special meals, or doing somersaults in the kitchen, then we are crossing a boundary. We are not helping our children to develop the skills to self-regulate and decide what feels best in their bodies. Some basic limits around sweets are fine, for example, as long as everyone in the house abides by them, but cutting out all sugar entirely is a recipe for a kid who binge-eats at their friends’ houses by middle school. I’ve seen it! (My kids’ Halloween candy gets dusty months later, but some of their friends may still look for it.)
Don’t impose food rules on your child. (Ideally don’t have them yourself.) If so, your child may use food as a way to separate and individuate from you during the teen years. You will have plenty of other things to negotiate, like curfews. Ideally, food should not be a battleground and a place where a teen feels “control.”
4) Love Your Body, or at Least Accept It
One of the best ways to accept our bodies as parents is to understand that there are so many forces at work that affect our body size, shape, and health. There are reasons that we have the body shape and size that we do—reasons that have nothing to do with how we eat. Heredity, hormones, and lifelong physical-activity patterns (including how naturally mobile and fidgety or grounded and still you are) have a profound effect on your body size and shape. Even epigenetics research points to your mother’s or grandmother’s eating habits while pregnant as affecting your body weight. (Interestingly, starving moms produce larger-weight children.)
Bad body talk is somehow acceptable in our society. If we look around, we hear it all over. It’s as if it is entirely reasonable to bash our bodies at every turn.
“This makes me look fat.”
“Oh, she’s really let herself go …”
“I probably shouldn’t eat this. I’m too fat already.”
And, the seemingly complimentary, but just as vicious …
“Oh, you look so good! Did you lose weight?”
Somehow, our moral fabric gets attached to our body shape and size. These comments, while innocent at first glance, can be demoralizing. In fact, some of my clients with eating disorders have comments like these going on in their heads so much all day that it’s hard for them to focus on much else. Others may be able to challenge those thoughts and function well in their lives but still feel a debilitating sense of shame and disgust around their bodies that percolates in the background.
Yes, the beauty industry insists on making us feel bad about our appearance by airbrushing pores, photo-shopping thighs, and giving us a picture of human beings that is downright fake. After all, if we felt excellent about ourselves, then we probably wouldn’t buy that face cream or lipstick or diet product. Teach your children to be media literate and know this about the diet and beauty industries.
And, above all else, work on accepting your own unique body. If you chastise your thighs in front of your daughter, you teach her that there might be something wrong with hers. After all, you are genetically linked and there is a good chance her body will resemble yours at some point. If you demonstrate love and care and respect for your own body, then it is more likely your children will develop this themselves.
5) See Your Child as a Whole Person
I love being a proud mama and telling the story of my daughter in sixth grade. One day a group of boys in her class were judging the girls in on how they look. She and her twin sister were in the top three, but she did not like it. To my amazement and delight, she went on to tell me that she marched up to one of the boys and told him to stop this practice. She said, “It makes the girls at the bottom of the list feel bad, and it makes me feel bad, too.” What she was trying to articulate is that even being told that you look gorgeous can feel objectifying and wrong. I assured her that she is so much more than a pretty face, and she agreed. I admired her courage and knew that I certainly wouldn’t have been so brave in my middle school days.
See your children as whole people and encourage them to see others that way, too. How we look is just one facet of who we are, and it’s certainly not the most important one. Kids understand this implicitly until our selfie culture teaches them otherwise. Create a good foundation for appreciating one’s whole self.
6) Get Help for Problems Early, and Be Discerning About the Help
Please get help for yourself if any of the above tips are hard for you. A nutrition therapist/registered dietitian or psychotherapist specializing in disordered eating is a good place to start if you want to examine your own body image and relationship to food.
If you notice that your child is developing a complicated relationship with food and/or her body, please express concern and love. Tell her that you would like her to get some support and help so that she can feel better and enlist the help of professionals (psychotherapists, registered dietitians, and medical care providers) who have expertise in eating disorders, even if your child is not fully there yet. If your child is younger than age 12, the work may be with parents only. Just any registered dietitian or therapist may not be able to address your child’s concerns in a holistic way. I have heard many stories of professionals exacerbating the problem, particularly if they have their own biases against larger bodies and they haven’t examined them or they don’t have training in working with eating disorders.
The research suggests that early help for disordered eating creates better recovery outcomes, less relapse, and a greater likelihood that your child will grow up to have a healthy relationship with food, body, and self. Overall, creating a climate of love, support, and acceptance at home will go a long way. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about many of the cultural and other influences on our children, but we can be a positive nurturing force in the mix.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you can obtain my book Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self here at https://www.anourishingword.com/the-book/.