Worried About Your Child's Diet? You're Not Alone

Giving our kids healthy eating habits isn't just about the food.

Posted Feb 25, 2018

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I've always been fascinated by the relationship people have with food. For years, I was a professional dancer, and when we weren't on stage, my fellow artists and I were obsessed with dieting. Our lives revolved around what we ate, what we didn't eat, and all those forbidden foods in between. This was our world.

Eventually, some of the dancers in our troupe had to give up thriving careers when their dietary obsessions turned life-threatening. Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating routinely sent good and talented people packing. But even those with lesser degrees of "disordered" eating were, in a way, imperiled. Their anxiety about food might not have been harmful to their health, but their preoccupation with it made them miserable.

In 1988, I left dancing to become a psychotherapist. Safely settled in a profession where one's livelihood didn't depend on being thin (have you ever heard of a patient dumping their shrink for gaining a few pounds?) I felt liberated. I also stopped dieting.

As I played around with eating the foods I had always considered off-limits, I began to reconnect with my body's signals and normalize my habits: I would allow myself that chocolate bar after my sandwich at lunch, or the occasional bowl of ice cream before bed.

My only rule was: I had to eat when I was hungry, and stop when I was full. I also had to eat what I ‘felt’ like, no matter what I thought I ‘should’ have. Surprisingly, that helped me to stop as I wasn’t “eating around the bush." (You know when you want chocolate but you have an apple, and then the yogurt, or carrots, and yogurt and then, finally the chocolate bar?)

Valuable lesson

Ironically, once I was less preoccupied with food, I actually wound up eating less and dropped the 10 pounds I had always fretted about. Not only was this a valuable lesson for me, but also one that I have seen repeated among the hundreds of patients who would come to me to help them solve their eating problems.

A lot of  my work today is focused on the helping parents to help their kids develop healthy eating habits. Feeding our children is one of the first and most primal ways we nurture them, so it's up to us to assist them in establishing smarter and better relationships with food.

But helping parents help their children with food issues has become increasingly complicated in recent years, especially given the sobering statistics: 81% of today's 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat, while the number of overweight youngsters, ages 6 to 11, has tripled since the 1960s, according to Time magazine. One in seven kids qualifies as obese.

Meanwhile, the cultural signals could not be more confusing to children: Everywhere they look, our kids are confronted by beauty icons who are disturbingly below the average weight — this, even as the food industry continues to embrace the trend of Super-sized portions. (Have you noticed that the size of the regular chocolate bar or snack is getting larger and larger? The latter, I'm convinced, has created in our kids a higher satiety signal — the inner alarm that tells us we're full — resulting in chronic overeating.)

So, how do we give our children the tools to navigate the landscape of non-stop ‘Instagramm-ing' and social media, (focusing on the body and looks) in the face of the double portion sizes that our culture has become used to? How do we help our kids cope with all of the trends in eating that come out every year?  It all comes down to helping them connect with their own bodies and teaching them decision making skill — not a small or simple task.

"Imposing a lot of (parental) control is really counterproductive," says Leann Birch, a psychologist at Penn State who specializes in kids' eating habits. "If you focus on external factors — like how much food is left on the plate, or what time it is — then children get out of touch with their internal cues for when they are hungry and when they are full."

If, as Birch recommends, we shouldn't become food wardens at home — forbidding junk food or candy, or depriving our kids of a burger and fries when that's what all their friends are eating — we certainly can fill their plates with basic skills about nutrition and tools to help them to know what their own unique bodies might be telling them.  

Four tools, for starters

There are four tools parents can give their kids to help them develop healthier eating habits:

• The motivation to understand how nutrition works for their bodies (such as telling them that the milk they're drinking is going to make their bones grow and, therefore, help them climb that tree or score that goal or grow into those roller blades they've been asking about).

• The power to stay connected to their bodies' signals of hunger and fullness and to eat accordingly. "You are the expert on your own body," I tell parents to tell their kids, "so it's your job to listen to what it's telling you and to take care of it."

• The ability to separate hunger from other feelings, such as boredom, sadness or anxiety, which often result in eating. Time and again, I have seen how a well-placed hug can be just as satisfying to kids as reflexive snacking.

• The skill to make smart decisions around food — which means not sacrificing those treats that "make the tongue happy," but instead to think through whether you want that treat now, or perhaps later?  

Thankfully, there are healthier foods available in the wake of the obesity awareness. I'm delighted that when I go to McDonald's that I can have a salad along with my fries. (Yup, I do go to McDonald’s from time to time and when my kids were younger and loved the toy, we would go once a  week until they started to rebel, telling me how bad the food was!) I'm encouraged to read about the greater attention that's being paid to the nutritional content of school lunches. Even on TV, the Cookie Monster is championing healthy food choices (albeit with his mouth full).

Helping our kids to eat “healthy” does not simply involve serving them healthy food or policing our own “Cookie Monsters." We can arm them with the tools to help them to develop a healthy relationship with food for life, and "take the fight out of food."