How to Talk to Kids About Their Hunger, Eating, and Bodies

Eating should be a private conversation between a girl, her hunger, and her body

Posted May 27, 2013

The topic of forcing young children to diet is in the news a lot lately because New York socialite Dara-Lynn Weiss told readers in Vogue magazine how she made Bea, her 7-year-old daughter, lose weight by demanding she follow a rigorous eating plan, strictly monitoring her every mouthful and humiliating her in public to keep her from eating.

Of course she rode the tsunami of infamy into a book deal and lots of press.

The tell-all Weiss wrote sparked a firestorm of criticism, of course, but also offers us an opportunity to have a more thoughtful public discussion about girls, their bodies, their body images, healthy eating, the importance of exercise and the damage (and eating disorders) that too often result when mothers get overly involved in controlling what their daughters eat.

We now have more than enough research and evidence that strictly controlling the eating habits of kids (especially girls) impairs their ability to read their own hunger and fullness signals, creates feelings of deprivation and lack of control and lays the foundation for eating disorders and obesity issues. When you disconnect kids from their bodies, they can't make good decisions.

Here are Do's and Don'ts for you tiger moms and grandma lions out there who are overly involved in what should be a private conversation between a girl and her own body:

1. Do think of food and eating as a card game. There are categories of foods you want to eat each day. We each need different amounts and combinations to keep us healthy, to keep our bodies fueled and running well.

According to the American Dietetic Association: "Good health depends on eating a variety of foods that contain the right amounts of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, as well as vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. For teenagers and adults, a healthy daily meal plan includes at least:

2 to 3 servings of nonstarchy vegetables

2 servings of fruits

6 servings of grains, beans and starchy vegetables

2 servings of low-fat or fat-free milk

About 6 oz of meat or meat substitutes

Small amounts of fat and sugar

2. Do encourage your children to listen carefully, mindfully to their bodies, their hunger and their fullness.

3. Do keep the focus internal, not external. Instead of asking how much a child weighs or how many calories she ate that day, focus on what her body feels like after exercising or what she notices about her hunger patterns when she has a breakfast of protein. Internal information is about how her body feels. External information, like what she thinks she should weigh, or how she thinks she should look, is a distraction.

4. Do make the goal for yourself and your children to normalize eating, not lose weight. If you are eating healthfully, mindfully and moving your body in some way every day, your weight and health will be what's optimal for your body.

5. Do encourage your child to drink a lot of water, especially before meals.

6. Do teach your child to eat mindfully - not in front of the television, while talking or texting on their cell phone or while doing anything else. Teach her to pay attention to the food, to how it makes her feel, to the taste, the smell, the texture, the flavors.

7. Don't burden your kid with YOUR body/food issues. Your child is not your diet buddy. You are not in the same body. You are not the same person. Your issues should NOT become hers.

8. Don't focus on numbers - pounds, BMI (body mass index), calories, clothing sizes. Numbers are simply information. They are not punishment. Do not let your child identify her SELF, her self-esteem, by a number.

9. Don't force your child to join the 'Clean Plate Club.' By forcing children to eat beyond their actual, physical fullness you are disconnecting them from their only accurate barometer for eating. There is so much evidence proving that forcing kids to eat beyond their hunger leads to obesity and eating disorders.

10. Don't monitor your child's eating, be intrusive or cruel, criticize her eating or her body, or get between the conversation between herself and her body. If you do this, it becomes a power struggle between mother and daughter -with the battleground being her body and nobody wins.

11. Do show, don't tell. It's your job to model exercising, healthy eating, exercise and body image self-esteem. Show her what a strong, healthy woman eats, how she cares for herself by exercising and how she takes pride in herself by being kind to her body.

12. Do not engage in "Fat Talk." Do not say you look fat, or tell your daughter you look fat or ugly or bad. Do not criticize other peoples' bodies to your daughter. Do not train her to hate her body. Do NOT be that awful, cruel voice in your own head or hers.

13. Do teach your child to eat when she is hungry and stop eating when she is full. It is astonishing how disconnected we are from our actual body signals.

14. Do teach your child to eat BEFORE she feels "starving" and to stop eating before she feels "stuffed."

15. Do teach your child to remain in the grey between extreme hunger and extreme fullness. Present eating as fueling one's body. For example, we want to keep our blood sugar at appropriate levels so we must "dose protein" several times a day to keep ourselves regulated healthfully.

16. Do move your bodies! Find fun ways to exercise as a family, on your own, with friends. Every day you and your kids should move your bodies for your health.

17. Do present the details of what foods are in what categories (proteins, carbs, fats, etc...) and teach yourself and your child what each food group contributes to the body. It's really all about science, so teach it that way.

18. Don't make food a moral or emotional issue. Food is neither good nor bad. It's healthy or unhealthy. It's not a "treat" for when you are sad. It's not a reward for an accomplishment. It's fuel for your body, not a way to handle your emotions. Don't teach her to eat her feelings!

19. Do stress moderation. If you make any food or group of foods completely off limits or forbidden, they become the subject of feelings of deprivation and the fuel for rebellion. Saying you may NEVER have something makes it the most delicious thing on the planet. Deprivation is the key to bingeing and other disordered eating.

20. Do focus on the fun of food - the colors, the seasonal changes, the tastes and textures. Experiment! Celebrate! Cook together and take pride in feeding yourselves well.


About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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