Last month I wrote about the potential harmful effects the WW Kurbo app has on children and families. Since then the debate has become increasingly heated and the medical and mental health community are at odds to what is “right and wrong.” So if you are a parent and/or caregiver and feel confused by how to raise a confident and healthy child, I DON’T BLAME YOU! It’s incredibly overwhelming and confusing!
One of my colleagues, Ariel Johnston, RD, LD, a well respected Dietitian in our community, and I put together a list to help parents and caregivers raise strong, healthy, and confident kids and teens. This list is based on our personal and professional experiences of working with individuals with disordered eating and eating disorders, as well as years of research in this field.
Here’s the good news and the scary news: This starts with us, not with our kids. It’s up to all of us who have any interaction with children (not just parents) to set a good example, practice what we preach, and teach our kids how to love their bodies and to love food, even we’ve been taught the opposite ourselves.
1) Foods choices are not a moral issue. Food is fuel for our bodies and should not be labeled as “good or bad.” ALL food has nutritional value and no one should feel ashamed for what they are eating and enjoying the taste of certain foods they enjoy.
Teach your child to approach foods neutrally and avoid categorizing food into “junk food” or “healthy food.” For example, instead of saying “processed meat like pepperoni will give you cancer.” Try, “Let’s mix a little bit of meat with a bunch of veggies on our pizza.” Instead of saying, “juice will rot your teeth” try, “we always brush our teeth after having juice.” Instead of saying ‘junk food’ try saying 'play food' or 'fun food' instead to take away the stigma.
By forbidding the less nutritionally dense food from your home (cookies, candy, chips, ice cream, etc.) it increases your child’s preference for them and the likelihood to binge on them when they have the opportunity. Studies have shown that parental control of kids food intake actually increases their enthusiasm for and intake of those restricted foods. Just like any diet or form of restriction, food policing from a parental figure disrupts the body's greatest tool to nourish itself: hunger and fullness signals.
So stock your pantry with a wide variety of foods and create a home environment that has a variety of foods from broccoli to tater tots to ice cream, because all food is good food!
2) Take a look at your own fears and stigma around weight, size, and health
We know that our kids are watching and listening to what we say and do as adults. That’s how they learn. I’m not judging if your child repeats a curse word at school and the teacher asks where they heard that (not that that’s every happened to me of course…). Our current diet culture which is a $60 billion dollar industry and profits off our insecurities, has brainwashed us to believe that we should all hate our bodies and do anything we can to change them. Can you imagine our children growing up in our world where they are encouraged to be proud of what their bodies can do for them and to look in the mirror and love what they see?!
Try and only speak positively about your own body and physical appearance. Avoid commenting on other’s body shape and size because that has nothing to do with who that person is. Discuss what your body does for you and how feeling healthy is about feeling strong, energetic, hopeful, and excited. Compliment your kids for the awesome things they are doing each day instead of how they look. Replace compliments about your child being pretty, beautiful, and skinny with being strong, courageous, caring, loving, kind, smart, funny. Help them shape their worth by who they are as a person not what others see on the outside.
3. Disband the clean plate club
We are all born intuitive eaters, meaning our bodies know what and how much they need. Intuitive eaters fully trust their body’s wisdom and eat according to it’s hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues, without guilt, rules, or restriction. Intuitive eating approaches have been found to positively impact eating habits, body image, self esteem, psychological health, and quality of life.
The clean plate club is essentially the opposite of intuitive eating. It's saying ignore all your bodily senses and eat everything that is in front of you. Obviously parents are doing this because they love their children and want to make sure they are getting all the nutrition they need, but in the long run it may be doing more harm than good because those practices can override a child’s innate ability to self-regulate energy intake.
Instead of saying, “Finish your plate before you leave the table.” Try, “if your tummy is full, you can leave it.” Teach your children to tune into their bodies. This may be the most important skill you can teach your child around food.
4. Cook with your child and eat at the table together
“When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”
By cooking together, you are teaching life skills and building connection through joyful and playful experiences. This is one of the most important practices with kids who are “picky eaters” to help them be more adventurous. Have them touch, play, and smell the food, even if they don’t like the taste. Cooking can also help those picky eaters to be more adventurous. When my toddler says she doesn’t like a food (which is frequently one she’s never tried btw) I encourage her to tell me what she does like about it. The color? The smell? How it rolls around or makes a funny noise on her plate? If she doesn’t it eat that’s okay, my goal is to ensure she’s not afraid of it.
5. Be your child’s advocate
This one may sound obvious but I think it’s actually the most difficult, even for myself. It’s hard to feel comfortable talking with your child’s school about the importance of NOT weighing children or sending home letters about their BMI and being “healthy vs. unhealthy.” It’s not easy to ask your pediatrician to not label your child as “unhealthy” or “overweight” but it’s vital to their self esteem. Labels breed shame and shame leads to low self esteem and (truly) unhealthy behaviors.
I can’t tell you how many teens I’ve worked with who can recall word for word when a doctor, coach, parent, teacher, told them they were “overweight” and “unhealthy” which then in turn lead then down a path of obsession, negative self worth and disordered eating. We all make mistakes and say things we wish we wouldn’t have, myself included. Don’t be afraid to own your mistakes and model for your kids that you’re learning how to love yourself and your body too.
Everyone is doing the best they can and making choices based on what they’ve learned, but it’s time to learn new ways of doing things to improve our culture so our children grow up in a world with less shame, guilt, fear, and criticism. One day (and meal) at a time!
Written with love and kindness by Ariel Johnston, RD, LD (TheTastyBalance.com) and Whitney Harken, LSCSW, LCSW, CEDS-S