Children learn attitudes to food and their bodies from their parents and caregivers every day, so it goes without saying that passing on a fear of gaining weight can negatively impact a child’s body image and their relationship with food.
It’s for this reason that I always encourage families that I meet in my workshops to learn how to speak positively to their little ones about food, as well as body image. I am so passionate about this topic that it is also something that I go into detail around in my book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” (along with a clinical psychologist’s perspective on the matter).
The most important thing I learned when I helped develop MEND, a programme to empower overweight and obese children and their parents, is that improving a family’s health takes more than simply swapping out junk food for healthier options and enrolling in extra physical activities. It also involves changing ingrained unhealthy behaviours and attitudes towards food for healthier ones.
It’s not just their bodies that are affected when children and adolescents develop unhealthy relationships with food; mental well-being can also be endangered.
Did you know that around four per cent of Australia’s population have eating disorders? Females make up around 64 per cent – however the percentage of males is increasing according to Eating Disorders Victoria.
Eating disorders generally develop in adolescence – although there have been cases involving younger children. Furthermore, there are strong links between a child’s food issues and their likelihood of developing an eating disorder as an adult.
Food anxiety and disorders like bulimia, anorexia and morbid obesity are complex illnesses that are as much psychological as they are physiological, so there is no magic list to prevent them. However, as parents we have a crucial role to play in setting our kids up for a healthy life.
Why it’s important to start early.
Your child’s relationship with food can provide tell-tale signs of emotional and mental stresses, so it is important that you are educated and feel supported when it comes to fostering positive eating practices.
A study published recently in the Paediatrics journal showed that different levels of selective eating may indicate that a child is at risk for psychiatric problems such as anxiety, depression or ADHD.
Furthermore, according to the American Association of Paediatrics, excess weight gain has been linked to three behaviours: feeding in response to emotional distress; using food as a reward; and excessive prompting to eat.
Approaching the issue from a nutritional standpoint, the best thing parents can do is to support their kids to eat well. This begins with your own attitude to food and extends to habits, practices and policies you can introduce into your home.
For a chocolatey treat that’s loaded with good fats that the kids will love. Watch Mandy Sacher of the Wholesome Child whip up a batch of Bliss Ball Cake Pops:
Here are nine strategies to help your kids form healthy relationships with food:
Strategy 1: Promote nutrition.
Speak positively about the attributes of good, nutritious food. For example, fish will make your skin glow, carrots are good for the eyesight. For older kids, you can go into greater detail about the benefits of good food. Don’t talk negatively about food in terms of high and low calories.
Strategy 2: Don’t single children out.
If one of your children has an issue with food, don’t single them out for eating too much or too little or for making poor food choices. Don’t keep junk food in the house that one child is allowed while another is prohibited.
Strategy 3: Strategic praise.
Praise them for good healthy choices, but don’t shame them for bad choices.
Strategy 4: Celebrate diversity.
Encourage children to celebrate diversity, and not place too much value on physical appearance. When you speak about bodies refer to them in terms of strength and all the wonderful things bodies can do rather than how they look.
Strategy 5: Teach appetite regulation.
Teach children how to regulate their own appetites. Don’t force them to eat everything on their plate. Teach them to eat slowly, to stop before they are too full and that sometimes when they feel hungry they may actually be thirsty.
Strategy 6: Lead by example.
Avoid negative talk about your own body or for validation. Don’t embark on fad diets or skip meals. Research has shown that the children of parents who are hyper focused on food intake and weight gain and of mothers who diet regularly are far more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.
Strategy 7: Eliminate body expectation.
As a parent, get real about body type. I have clients sometimes come to me concerned about their child’s weight or body shape that really don’t need to be. Every body and physique is different – some kids will be stocky or skinny no matter what they eat. Be careful about placing your own body expectations on them.
Strategy 8: Discourage emotional eating.
If your kids are using food to escape boredom or for comfort, teach them alternative, productive ways of dealing with unpleasant feelings when they arise.
Strategy 9: Know when to seek professional help.
Ask for help. If your child’s eating habits and relationship with food is worrying you, seek the help of professionals like a child psychologist who can work together with a team of nutritionists and dieticians to give you the help you and your child need.
In the spirit of celebrating Mother’s Day this Sunday, Wholesome Child is offering a 20% discount on all online purchases of “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” using coupon voucher code: MUM20 *Offer valid for purchases made via the Wholesome Child website only, limited to one use per person and expires 14/5/18.
Visit the Wholesome Child website to learn more about Mandy Sacher. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes. Connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.