(Originally published in the August 24, 2017 edition of The Jewish Home)
My parents had the best intentions when they started controlling my food intake in grade school. It was painful for them to see their once thin and active child gain weight and be in a less than “ideal” body. I was a happy, carefree child until parents, pediatricians, and other influential adults decided that my weight was a problem, and my eating habits were to blame. Before that, food was something to be enjoyed, and my body was simply the way I got to race across the monkey bars. Afterwards, my body became an enemy I had to fight; and food became something bad that had to be policed and controlled. Once the dark cloud moved in over my head reminding me that there was something wrong with me, it followed me for the next twenty years through yo-yo dieting, disordered eating & negative body image.
My experience is sadly all too common. However, as parents, we can make that sort of experience rarer by focusing less on what and more on the how when it comes to feeding our children.
All good parents want to help; they want to teach their children to be healthy, productive individuals, and to set them up for a lifetime of success and happiness. Parents of children in larger bodies tend to view diet, exercise, and weight-control as a panacea. I understand the impulse to “fix” our children’s health, but the weight-loss focused approach of diet and exercise, is not only unhelpful, but in the long term potentially dangerous to our children. More often than not it leads to weight gain, disordered eating, and even serious eating disorders.
Today, I work as an eating psychology coach helping woman heal their relationships with food and their own bodies. Many of my clients began their unhealthy food and body relationships in much the same way that I did, at a young age when their parents, doctors, and others made issues of their eating habits and weight. So many children spend their formative years being told that their weight is a problem and being criticized and policed over their appetites and food choices. Nutritional knowledge, tips for self-control, and diet regimens are drilled into their heads, but typically the only thing they have to show for it is poor self-esteem, guilt about their bodies and food choices.
Focusing on weight loss typically backfires: Eighty to ninety five percent of people who lose weight on a diet end up gaining back that weight and more. In one study of Minnesota teenagers, researchers found that dieting – not extremely limited diets, not major crash diets, but all dieting - increased the teens risk for developing eating disorders. When we teach children about portion control and manipulate their food choices, this registers to them psychologically as a restriction on their food, which in turn can lead to feelings of food obsession and binging, which leads to guilt and shame when they eat beyond their “allowed” amount. In other words, this is unwell, disordered eating waiting to happen. It is not surprising, therefore, that in a recent statement the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly affirmed that diet talk and the pursuit of weight loss are harmful for children because of the increased risk of obesity and eating disorders.
The problem is bigger than just disordered eating and poor body image, however. (Though, that is surely enough!) Children do not compartmentalize the way adults do. I know that when someone criticizes my size as an adult, it is not a reflection on the totality of my life or of me as a person. When a child is told that there is something wrong with their body, weight, or eating habits, they typically take this as critique of their whole being. As Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, MSW a pioneer in the field of childhood feeding, puts it, if children “are seen as flawed in one way, they experience themselves as flawed in all ways.”
We all care about the health and well-being of our children. But maybe it’s time we shift our focus on how we approach our children’s health because the way we have been doing it isn’t working. If talking to children about healthy eating is supposed to guide them away from obesity, why are we still having this conversation?
If we want to properly help our children develop healthy relationships with food and their bodies, there are no easy fixes and no magic diet formulas. We have to address behaviors around food rather than hyper focus on the types, amounts, and frequencies of the foods our children eat.
Where do we go from here? Here are a few pointers that can help you get started on making small, slow, but lasting and effective, positive changes in how you and your children approach food and body issues.
1. Love Them. Your job as a parent is to love your child and their body, no matter what size, unconditionally. It can be hard to see your child in a body that you didn’t wish for them, but children are smart and they can sense your disappointment and concern. Your child is perfect and they need to know that you know it. There will be plenty of outsiders to tell them otherwise, so he or she needs to know from you that his or her body is exactly as it should be. You can even take it a step further and celebrate how fun and fantastic their body is – Dance! Laugh! Tickle! Play!
2. Raise competent eaters . . . for the long run. As children grow up, they learn each day to be more independent and will rely less on you. So let’s fire the food police and lay a foundation of behaviors that will allow them to make intuitive food choices that are right for their body for whatever situation they are in. One approach to raising a competent eater is Ellyn Satter’s “Divison of Responsabiliy (sDOR)”. This framework teaches us to trust our children’s natural ability to eat while nourishing them in a way that does not feel restrictive. Restrictive feeding can lead children to mistrust that their parents will provide adequate and enjoyable food and this can lead to binging - behaviors we want to avoid when raising competent eaters. You can read more about this in Ms. Satter’s book, “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming” or find a weight neutral registered dietician for one on one guidance.
3. Food as an enjoyable experience. Create positive food-related memories for our children. I remember sitting around my Bubby Ella’s table with my cousins, laughing and blowing bubbles into our chocolate milk, I still love chocolate milk to this day. A great way to foster enjoyable experiences around food is by enjoying family meals where we can eat, laugh, and talk about our days. Many of us are already ahead of the game, as we already have two family Shabbos meals each week, but more is better. If busy schedules make this too hard, try to at least have children sit down together with whichever parent is available during meal times. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but creating family meal times gives children so much to celebrate and look forward to each time there is an eating opportunity, and makes it less about food and more about a wholesome experience.
This isn’t about getting it all right all the time. This is about having a mindset shift today so that we feel more wholesome and confident in our children’s bodies for a happier tomorrow. I know if we all put our best foot forward we can experience a world where all kids get to stay kids, where the sun shines brightly on them and their world is filled with joy, laughter and rows of monkey bars ready to be mastered.