Helping Children to Develop a Healthy Relationship to Food
Expert: Dr. Stacey M. Rosenfeld
1. The “Do as I Say, Not as I Do” Approach
Many young women who develop full-blown eating disorders often report that their mothers (or other close family members) were either lifelong dieters or had clinical eating disorders — children tend to model what they see. For the regular dieter, it is important to understand the impact that this can have on your children. They will learn by observing you that it is important to restrict food, that some foods are good and others are bad, that some weights/shapes are acceptable and others are not. These are dangerous messages to send.
Mothers may want to take a look at their behaviors — including how they talk about food and their bodies in front of their daughters — and aim to present a healthier, more inclusive approach for their daughters and for themselves. Ditch your scale, or if you feel you cannot, weight yourself only once a week and try to do so when your children are not around. Like it or not, we live in a culture that values thinness and willpower, among other things. However, in the home, parents can combat these cultural messages rather than support them.
2. Focusing on Weight Rather than Health
Many parents label certain foods as “fattening” and discourage their children from eating them — they’ll communicate to their children that “fast food makes you fat,” or that having that extra cookie after dinner, on a regular basis, could cause you to gain weight. When you talk to your children about food, focus on the foods’ effects on health, rather than weight. Say things like, “Vegetables contain vitamins which make us healthy” rather than “eating vegetables won’t make you gain weight.” Take the same approach towards exercise. Encourage frequent activity and focus on how exercise can help make our bodies stronger and healthier, rather than on the impact it has on weight-loss or -control.
3. Hiding the Cookie Jar
Too often, parents limit their children’s intake of certain foods, connoting that only certain foods are acceptable to eat (e.g., fruit good, candy bad). While vegetables are certainly more nutritious than candy, treats can be acceptable as well. Refrain from classifying foods as good or bad. Allow children to eat all foods, including sweets, in moderation. The more we restrict a certain food, the more likely it is for our children to put too much value on that food — which can eventually backfire over time. This can lead, for example, to children overvaluing desserts and overdoing it later on in life.
As told to Lindsay Armstrong.