“It’s so big, mom!” I turn and see a four-year-old girl frowning with her shirt lifted, pointing to her belly, telling her mom she is done eating. I want to tell this little girl that the size of her body should not dictate how she feels about food or herself, but I know ultimately her parents will be the ones to have a long-term impact on her relationship with food and body image.
Putting your kids on a diet or starting one yourself might be done with the best of intentions, but experts say that dieting often leads to suppressed metabolism and weight gain, and the guilt and shame associated with weight gain after dieting might lead to more severe disordered eating behaviors in your kids, and in some cases eventually develop into an eating disorder.
Our children are constantly being bombarded by peers and the media about how their bodies should look. With a narrow range of what a healthy and attractive body looks like, our children can lose the healthy message that the body they have been given is a gift. Messages of inadequacy, especially when they come from people close to them, can be very harmful to a child’s physical and mental health.
To balance the negative messaging, here are a few things you can do to combat the shame many kids feel around food and their bodies:
Talk less about weight.
In a report looking at possible effects of communicating with children about weight, researchers concluded that “encouraging children to lose weight and criticizing weight was associated with poorer physical self-perceptions and greater dieting and dysfunctional eating.” Since kids have a tendency to soak up what their parents say and do, a child who talks a lot about their own weight may have first heard negative self-talk from someone in the family.
Overemphasis on dieting and weight loss, as well as talking negatively about your own body in front of your kids, can lead children to develop a poor relationship with food and their own body-image issues. Focusing on health, no matter your body size is a much more sustainable practice for healthy living. Your kids will likely hear things about how certain body sizes are bad, but you can help them understand that bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
Focus on health instead of weight by avoiding talking to your kids about their body shape or size, positive or negative. Discussion about body appearance only reinforces the idea that your kids’ body size is related to their self-worth. Instead, choose to emphasize the amazing things your children’s bodies can do and the internal qualities they possess.
Welcome food of all kinds.
When it comes to food, families could choose to focus on moderation instead of restriction. For example, a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will provide all the nutrients your family needs. But restricting food and eliminating entire food groups at home in order for you or a child to lose weight is likely to lead to your child developing a negative relationship with certain foods.
“Despite parents’ good intentions, they use many feeding practices that are associated with negative outcomes,” said Dr. Amy Galloway and associates in an article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Dr. Galloway, who has focused many years of research on parent-child food interactions and disordered eating in children and adults, also states, “Restrictive feeding practices can actually promote the liking and increased intake of palatable, energy-dense nutrient-poor foods, and foster the development of overeating.” For example, if you refused to buy candy for your kids, your kids are more likely to overeat candy at a friend’s house or at school.
Don’t force it.
When children feel pressure to eat certain foods, Dr. Galloway says, they are less likely to eat as much of that food as children who were not pressured. Other research indicates that children naturally have signals telling them when they are hungry or full. When these signals are interrupted by pressure to eat or finish all the food on their plate, the intuitive self-regulation process weakens. Then certain foods become paired with negative parental pressure, which makes kids see the food as negative as well.
Even without pressure from parents, children may have a tendency to reject unfamiliar foods. In these cases, there is value in experimenting with your approach. Pediatrician and founder of the Dr. Yum Project, Nimali Fernando, suggests introducing children to healthier foods without exposing them to the shame of diet talk. She also explains that by seeing, preparing, and watching others interact with unfamiliar foods, children get the exposure they need to help them become more comfortable with the prospect of eating nutritious foods without feeling forced.
Reject diet mentality.
Having spent some time working with adolescents and women who have eating disorders, I have noticed a trend among patients suffering from anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Though each case has its own unique factors, restrictive dieting—either starting a diet on their own or seeing a parent diet—remains the culprit for the way many patients began their dangerous choices around food.
When we buy products that promote certain diets and fall prey to advertisements demonizing certain foods, we begin to put the idea in our children’s minds that food can be moralized. As highlighted in a New York Times article, Christy Harrison, registered dietitian and author of “Anti-Diet” says: “When kids see diet culture messaging and absorb their parents’ worries about body size, it can instill a sense of guilt and fear around food that may impact their relationship with eating for years or even decades to come.” Leaving behind a diet mentality can be tough, but as we understand the harm it might cause our children and us, we can choose to leave it behind.
Parents have the power to raise children without promoting toxic attitudes about health and weight while advocating healthy attitudes and lifestyle choices at home. By choosing to change their unhealthy practices, parents can elevate their family’s physical and mental health to a whole new level.