Talking to your children about food, eating habits, and bodies

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Parenting can be challenging, physically, mentally, and emotionally. You want to give your children the guidance and support they’ll need to navigate the world successfully when they’re ready. You want them to be “happy” and “healthy.” It’s not easy, and there’s no one “right” answer. So many factors can influence what we do, how we behave, and how we feel. And many are out of our control. 

One important influence you can have on your children that can have a big impact on their health and well-being is teaching them to have a healthy relationship with food, eating, and their bodies. And that starts with exploring your own beliefs and biases when it comes to health, wellness, food, eating habits, and bodies, so you can pass on more informed, inclusive attitudes to your kids. Here are some tips on how to talk to your children about these topics.

Last updated on 
September 9, 2022
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Teach them food is not inherently good or bad

Food is not inherently good or bad, unless it is spoiled, rotten, or moldy. It is fuel for our bodies, and we should view it as such. There’s a lot of value-laden language around food and eating habits in our culture. Certain foods, food groups, and ingredients are labeled good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, free, safe, and so on. We tell our kids there are good choices and bad choices.

And we mean well. Because we want our kids to be “healthy.” We don’t want them to get “fat.” Because, in our culture, being fat is bad and “unhealthy.” 

We are inundated with this messaging from the media, friends, family, even healthcare providers. So your kids probably hear other people talking about food and eating habits as good and bad frequently. 

They may hear people say they were “so bad today” for eating extra cake or too much candy. They may be directed not to eat something, because it’s “bad for you,” or “you’ve had enough,” or “that will make you fat.” 

On the other hand, they may hear people praising each other or themselves for being “so good all weekend” and not “cheating” by sticking to their diet. Or they may be directed to make or praised for making a “good choice” when a variety of food is available. Or they may not even be given a choice to eat what they want. 

We may say and do all these things, too. But these beliefs, labels, and behaviors are actually harmful to health, not helpful. 

It’s important to inform yourself about why they are harmful and what the actual health outcomes of engaging in this dialogue about food and eating habits are. And change the way you talk to your children about food. Depending on their age, you can also explain to your children why this is negative language and why it’s so harmful.

Assigning foods moral value can perpetuate prejudice and stigma. This often results in feelings of shame and guilt, which, in turn, can precipitate depression, anxiety, poor self image–and disordered eating. 

Yes, these beliefs and behaviors about food and eating habits actually feed disordered eating patterns and can lead to full-blown eating disorders. Disordered eating can include overeating, sneaking food, hiding food, hoarding food, and restricting in some way. Restricting can include dieting, not eating certain foods or food groups, not eating in anticipation of or to make up for a special occasion meal, and purging and restricting inevitably leads to overeating, or binging.

Talking about foods this way can set your children up for a lifetime of struggling with food, weight cycling, negative body image, anxiety, and depression, unfortunately.

When you talk to your children about food, try not to use value-laden language at all. Instead, use neutral language that describes properties of the food. Better yet, ask questions about what your kids are hungry for, so they learn to listen to their bodies’ built-in ability to tell them what it needs.

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Destigmatize weight and celebrate all body sizes and shapes with HAES

It’s never too early to introduce a healthier approach to body sizes to your child. The HAES acronym stands for Health At Every Size, a health approach that works to destigmatize weight and advocate that people can be healthy at many different sizes and weight isn’t an indicator of health. HAES also celebrates and respects body diversity. (1) 

Explain to your child the harms of BMI, which they have likely been exposed to at school and at the doctor’s office. Explain how BMI is also not an indicator of health. BMI is just a height/weight ratio that doesn’t take the diversity of human experience and body types and factors, such as muscle mass, bone density, race, or gender, into consideration.

You can teach your child to appreciate and not judge people of all body shapes and sizes by pointing out discrimination and stigma and speaking out against it. For example, if you are watching a movie or TV show with your child and you notice one of the characters saying something fatphobic, use this as a teaching moment for your child. Talk about what the character said and why it’s problematic. 

Try to normalize the word fat as just a descriptor that doesn’t have any negative connotation, like thin, skinny, short, tall, or any other word that describes a person’s body. Teach your children it’s OK to say the word fat when describing a person, because bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

Instead of using weight as a measure of health and worthiness, teach your child that you can’t judge a person’s health by what they look like. Fat people can be healthy, and thin people can be unhealthy. 

Emphasize eating what you like and participating in physical activities you like. Avoid discussing exercise as a way to manage weight or body size. Instead, frame movement as a fun, pleasurable activity. Encourage your child to do things they enjoy, such as a sport, dancing, hiking, playing tag, or otherwise.

Introduce intuitive eating and let go of food rules

Intuitive eating involves listening to your body’s hunger and satiety cues and eating accordingly. We are born with the innate ability to discern when we are hungry, full, and satisfied. But the messages we get from our society often tell us to eat when we aren’t hungry or avoid food even if we are. 

For example, you may have been raised in a time in which your parents forced you to eat everything on your plate before you were able to leave the table. But this teaches us to ignore our satiety cues. Or you may have been told you’ll spoil your appetite if you eat something too close to dinnertime, even though you were hungry. This teaches us to ignore our hunger cues. It’s important to avoid practices like these with your children. (2)

Other practices that go against intuitive eating include: (2)

  • Forcing your child to eat just because it’s breakfast/lunch/dinner time
  • Exposing your child to diets or restricting of any kind, such as Atkins, keto, paleo, Weight Watchers, juice cleanses, or intermittent fasting

Instead, you should teach your child to tune into their body’s signals and talk about them. Teach them that their body knows what it needs and tells us in the form of hunger, fullness and cravings—something known as body wisdom. 

Let them know all foods are allowed, and no foods are off limits. Unless they have a legitimate food allergy. Tell them it’s OK to overeat when something tastes good, and they want more.

Here’s how to get started with intuitive eating for both you and your child:

  • Grant yourselves permission to eat whenever you feel hungry and to eat whatever you want
  • Ask yourself why you feel the urge to eat–are you truly hungry or do you want to eat to cope with uncomfortable emotions, or because you’re bored, or some reason other than hunger
  • Listen to your body’s hunger and satiety cues to determine when and how much food to eat
  • Focus on how you feel over how you look

Educate them about well-being and take the focus off weight

When you shift the focus from weight to well-being, you take the pressure off your children to maintain or reach a certain weight, which is not entirely under an individual’s control. Plus, research has found focusing on weight tends to lead to disordered eating behaviors and weight gain. (3) Instead, teach them that bodies can be healthy or unhealthy at any weight, and foods provide energy and nourishment for the body to function.

Explain that there are so many aspects to health, and mental health is just as important as physical health. Educate them about signs and symptoms of mental and emotional distress, and teach them to tune into their bodies. Prioritize therapy for your child, if needed, or family counseling if you think that may be helpful.

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Ditch diet culture and healthism beliefs

Diet culture is all around us. Use examples of diet culture as teaching moments. If you are at the grocery store with your child, explain to them why various advertisements on food are harmful and shame people into ignoring their intuition and hunger cues in favor of calorie restriction and cutting out entire food groups, which are actually disordered eating behaviors. 

If you overhear someone making judgmental comments about someone else’s cart, you can explain to your child that this is an example of healthism, in which people believe the pursuit of health is important above all else to an unhealthy extreme. Such healthiest attitudes are actually harmful to well-being. 

Depending on your child’s age, you can also begin to explain inequity and how many people don’t have access to or can’t afford better quality food. And even if they do, choosing to eat certain foods doesn’t decide their worth.

Avoid criticizing yourself and others

So often we engage in self-criticism, and that is inadvertently teaching our children how to talk about themselves and others. Constantly engaging in negative self-talk, whether it’s about our body shape or weight, normalizes this way of speaking for our children, which can cause them to have a dysfunctional relationship with eating and a negative view of their bodies.

Instead, try to avoid criticizing yourself, as well as others around you, whether they are strangers, celebrities, or family members. It’s never okay to talk negatively about other people’s bodies or appearances, even if they are celebrities we will never meet. The message we are sending our children is the same: Physical appearance is more important than anything else about a person or in life.

If you often criticize yourself in front of your child and tend to diet a lot, this could be a sign of a deeper issue. It’s important to educate yourself on disordered eating behaviors, so you can recognize them. If you are struggling with a preoccupation with food, eating, dieting, mirror checking, and extreme concerns about your weight or body size, or your child is, please consider reaching out to an eating disorder professional for help.

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Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Penney, T. L., & Kirk, S. F. (2015). The Health at Every Size paradigm and obesity: missing empirical evidence may help push the reframing obesity debate forward. American journal of public health, 105(5), e38–e42. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302552
  2. Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2013). Review article relationships between Intuitive Eating and Health Indicators: Literature Review. Public Health Nutrition, 17(8), 1757–1766. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1368980013002139 
  3. Berge, J.M., MacLehos, R., Loth, K.A., Eisenberg, M., Bucchianeri, M.M., Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013) Parent Conversations About Healthful Eating and Weight: Associations With Adolescent Disordered Eating Behaviors. JAMA Pediatrics;167(8):746–753. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.78

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