How to Raise Kids Who Love Food, Their Bodies, and Themselves

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Photo Courtesy of Amy Schauster

There are so many confusing messages about how to eat out there. Every week there is a new “healthy eating plan” that is “cleaner” than the rest. They sound like well-being breakthroughs, but many of them contradict each other. They are diets in disguise. Many of these wellness-focused messages are dangerous to our children’s health and well-being because they take them away from their natural, intuitive sense about balanced eating.

In the United States, the diet industry is a $60 billion industry. Research shows that 96% of people who go on diets to lose weight will gain the weight back (often plus more), bringing them back to the next book, program, or product — and often a lifetime of struggle with their bodies. The U.S. also contains approximately 6 to 11 million people with eating disorders. Eating disorders are the number one killer of all psychiatric illnesses.

All of that said, in this culture, how do we raise children to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies? How do we prevent the suffering of eating disorders of all types: restrictive anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and all the variants in between?

Here’s how:

1) Stop the Diet Talk

Ideally, be a parent that is not on a diet. If you are, try to keep it out of your child’s consciousness as much as you can. (Know that once they get older, this is nearly impossible.) Restrictive eating is not sustainable, and it creates a cycle of struggle with food and body that can last a lifetime. If you want your child to develop healthy, balanced eating habits, you have to practice this moderate eating yourself. If you are a chaotic eater who goes back and forth between restricting and overeating compulsively, your children will be imitating this as they learn how to regulate their own eating and appetites.

I have supported people who struggle with disordered eating for the past twenty-five years. Most of the adult clients I work with who struggle with compulsive eating either imitated dieting parents or were put on a diet at a young age by a well-meaning caregiver or medical professional. The greatest risk factor for struggling with one’s weight as an adult is dieting in childhood and adolescence. Please don’t encourage it or demonstrate to your child how to do it.

2) Stop the Fat-Shaming

Please consider letting go of the myth that we need to live up to the body shape which is the cultural favorite. I’m going to specifically talk here about women, though I am aware that our biases towards thinness and perfection affect persons of all genders. For ease of writing, I will use a binary distinction “woman/female/she,” knowing well that gender is not a binary construct for many people.

Many non-western cultures today view female fatness as a sign of health, wealth, and vitality. Before the 1800s, so did western culture. In colonial days in the United States, the voluptuous figure was generally seen as more desirable. In the 1900s, the U.S. significantly shifted its aesthetic on women’s bodies, and the media began to show thin, lithe figures as the ideal. At the same time, the growing diet and fitness industries sold us the belief that we could do something to our bodies to live up to that thinner ideal. Feminist scholars highlight the rise of thinness and diet culture alongside the rise of women’s liberation. Many believed it to be a backlash and response to women’s emerging power and equality, feared by society’s patriarchal structure.

All genders are affected by a thin ideal and weight stigma. Even casual negative talk about fatness or larger bodies is damaging to children of all sizes. Those in larger bodies will feel they are less than ideal, and those in smaller bodies will feel they need to work harder so they don’t become a part of that stigmatized group. We all suffer when we don’t accept our differences and instead place a moral judgment on body size. Those kids in larger bodies who are particularly stigmatized suffer the most.

Don’t tolerate negative fat talk from your kids, and please examine your own biases. We are all a part of this cultural soup and may not even be aware of our own stigmatizing language and beliefs.

Even well-meaning comments about weight and body shape to a child may go destructively deep and erode self-esteem. I hear about this childhood shame in the stories of so many of my clients who struggle with food for decades. Negative body thoughts (who doesn’t have them sometimes?) can go awry and become the foundation for developing a terrible relationship with eating and fitness. For some, this may ultimately lead to an eating disorder. I invite you to rethink and reframe how you talk to your kids about their bodies.

3) Stay in Your Own Lane

Ellyn Satter, MSW, RDN, introduced me to the gold standard “rule” about feeding children well. It’s about the division of responsibility. Your responsibility as parents and caregivers is to provide a variety of nutritious food. Your child’s responsibility is to eat it. When we try to move into our kids’ lanes and “get” them to eat certain things (or not eat certain things) by coercion, reward, cooking special separate meals, or doing somersaults in the kitchen, then we are crossing a boundary. We are not helping our children develop self-regulation skills.

Children must learn about what feels good in their bodies from the inside out. This is a body-sensing and not a “thinking” function. When forces outside of children tell them what or how to eat, they may lose contact with that important inner regulatory experience that tells them when they are hungry or when enough is enough.

This doesn’t mean we set kids free in a candy store without limitations. Some basic limits around sweets are fine, for example, as long as everyone in the house abides by them. “Here’s two dollars for the candy store,” or providing a small bag to be filled are two reasonable limits. However, cutting out sugar entirely is a recipe for a kid who binge-eats at their friends’ houses by middle school. I’ve seen it! (My daughters’ Halloween candy gets dusty, but some of their friends would still hunt for it months later.)

Don’t impose food rules on your child. Ideally, don’t have them yourself. If so, your child may use food as a way to separate and individuate from you during the teen years. You will have plenty of other things to negotiate, like curfews. Ideally, food should not be a battleground and a place where a teen finds “control.”

4) Love Your Body, or at Least Accept It

One of the best ways to accept our bodies as parents is to understand that so many forces affect our body size, shape, and health. There are reasons that we have the body shape that we do — reasons that have nothing to do with how we eat. Heredity, hormones, and lifelong physical-activity patterns have a profound effect on your body size and shape. Even epigenetics research points to your mother’s or grandmother’s eating habits while pregnant as affecting body weight. (Interestingly, starving moms produce infants who become larger-weight children and adults, which may be a protective adaptation.)

Unfortunately, bad body talk is somehow acceptable in our society. If we look around, we hear it all over. It’s as if it’s entirely reasonable to bash our bodies at every turn.

“This makes me look fat.”

“Oh, she’s really let herself go …”

“I probably shouldn’t eat this. I’m too fat already.”

And, the seemingly complimentary, but just as vicious,

“Oh, you look so good! Did you lose weight?”

Somehow, our moral fabric gets attached to our body shape and size. These comments, while innocent at first glance, are sneakily demoralizing. In fact, some of my clients with eating disorders have comments like these going on in their heads so much all day that it’s hard for them to focus on much else. Others may be able to challenge those thoughts and function well in their lives, but they still feel a debilitating sense of shame and disgust around their bodies that percolates in the background.

Yes, the beauty industry tries to make us feel bad about our appearance by airbrushing pores, photo-shopping thighs, and giving us a picture of human beings that is downright fake. After all, if we felt excellent about ourselves, we probably wouldn’t buy that face cream or lipstick or diet product. Teach your children to be media literate and know this about the diet and beauty industries. Remind them that most of those photos on social media are the hand-picked best, filtered to death. This is why they look so perfect and don’t often resemble real-life faces or bodies.

And, above all else, work on accepting your own unique body. If you chastise your thighs in front of your daughter, you teach her that there might be something wrong with hers. After all, you are genetically linked, and there is a good chance her body will resemble yours at some point. If you demonstrate love and care and respect for your own body, then it’s more likely your children will develop this body acceptance themselves.

5) See Your Child as a Whole Person

I love being a proud mama and telling the story of my daughter in sixth grade. One day a group of boys in her class was judging the girls on how they look. She and her twin sister were in the top three, but she did not like it. To my amazement and delight, she went on to tell me that she marched up to one of the boys and told him to stop this practice. She said, “It makes the girls at the bottom of the list feel bad, and it makes me feel bad, too.” She was trying to articulate that even being told that you look gorgeous can feel objectifying and wrong. I assured her that she is so much more than a pretty face, and she agreed. I admired her courage, knowing I certainly wouldn’t have been so brave in my middle-school days.

See your children as whole people and encourage them to see others that way, too. How we look is just one facet of who we are, and it’s certainly not the most important one. Kids understand this implicitly until our selfie culture teaches them otherwise. Create a good foundation for appreciating the whole self.

6) Get Help for Problems Early, and Be Discerning About the Help

Please get some support if any of the above tips are difficult for you. A nutrition therapist/registered dietitian or psychotherapist specializing in disordered eating is a good place to start if you want to examine your own body image, weight biases, and relationship to food.

If you notice that your child is developing a complicated relationship with food and/or body, please express concern and love. Tell her that you would like her to get support and help to feel better about herself and enlist the help of professionals (psychotherapists, registered dietitians, and medical care providers) who have expertise in eating disorders, even if your child is not fully there yet. If your child is younger than age 12, the work may be with parents only.

Keep in mind that just any registered dietitian, therapist, or doctor may not be able to address your child’s concerns holistically. I have heard many stories of professionals exacerbating the problem, particularly if they have not examined their own biases against larger bodies or if they don’t have training in eating disorders. Be discerning about adult helpers.

Research suggests that early help for disordered eating creates better recovery outcomes, less relapse, and a greater likelihood that your child will grow up to have a healthy relationship with food, body, and self. This is encouraging. I see many adolescents struggle and overcome these battles. They then lead productive, healthy lives and are often advocates for a more size-inclusive culture.

Creating a climate of love, support, and acceptance at home will go a long way. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about the many cultural, traumatic, and other influences on our children, but we can be a positive nurturing force in the mix. A little love and acceptance go a long way.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy my book Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self.

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