Eating has become way too complicated these days, especially since the media and social media have such a presence when it comes to food and exercise. Firstly, I think as best as parents can, they should work on talking about food in a more neutral way – aka there is no such thing as a good, bad, clean, dirty, etc. food.
I encourage parents to have a wide variety of foods available in their home from the 5 food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy. Having a fruit and veggie at all three meals is important because these are the highest in vitamins and minerals. I also find it helpful when families have a “fun food” (some type of dessert), at least 2 times a week. It is not uncommon for the families I work with to have a dessert once a day. This helps to normalize dessert.
What healthy really means
Overall, we need more education about what healthy means. I am a dietitian and I get so many questions about various types of foods and whether or not “they are good for you.” I don’t like to put food into categories of “good” or “bad” because it perpetuates the idea that you are “bad” if you have certain foods and you should feel guilty of shameful.
I think explaining more to parents why this idea is important and how it relates to eating disorders is a good approach. We can teach parents that there are no “good” or “bad” foods and empower them to be able to model a normal eating pattern for their children.
I find that negative comments about food or body image can trigger emotional distress in my clients. It is also important to educate parents on how to appreciate their bodies.
Preventing eating disorders
I think the best thing any of us can do to prevent eating disorders is to be knowledgeable and learn about the topic – what are the causes, how can you spot an eating disorder and what are the preferred treatment methods.
Early recognition is so essential and can be really difficult, but if we can educate health care practitioners, parents, teachers, coaches, etc. about the signs and symptoms, I think that would be the best way to get individuals early treatment.
I also think it’s really important to educate the community about what a “positive relationship with food” means and what “healthy” means. All of the media out there surrounding food and weight loss can trigger eating disorders and disordered eating. So, I believe that having more mainstream positive media is so important.
Hope for eating disorder recovery
Eating disorder recovery is possible. I recently read an article about a study that was published in The Journal of Clinical Psychology that discussed how up to two-thirds of women with eating disorders recover. It takes time and a lot of treatment, but an eating disorder does not have to be a life sentence.
I think it is so important for loved one of those struggling to seek therapy or counseling for themselves. Supporting a loved one can at times be overwhelming and stressful, so having a professional to talk to is important.
I also would want all parents to know that it is absolutely not your fault if your loved one has developed an eating disorder. There are so many factors involved and one of them is actually genetics, something we cannot control. Additionally, I cannot stress education enough. Parents should do their best to research the disorder, read books, attend support groups and ask questions.
From a dietitian standpoint, I also encourage my clients’ parents to eat meals with them. This can help provide distraction and encouragement. During meal time, it is important to avoid stressful topics (like politics) and also avoid making comments about food. Some find it helpful to play games or watch funny videos.
HAES and Intuitive Eating
In terms of health at every size, I do understand my clients’ concern of wanting to lose weight, however, we work together to take the conversation off the number on the scale and talk more about what they may be able to do to feel better and how they can enjoy life. That is what I use as my indication of whether or not nutrition is working, not the number on the scale, but how my clients are feeling physically and emotionally.
Intuitive eating is a difficult practice to incorporate. I am not even sure if I have mastered it yet! We talk about what hunger/fullness means to people and how their body may feel at these physical sensations. We use the hunger-fullness scale to rate hunger and fullness on a continuum from 1-10. 1 is REALLY hungry and 10 is REALLY full.
I will actually have clients discuss what each number feels like both emotionally and physically so they can get a better understanding of their hunger and appetite. We can talk about the difference between belly (physical) and head (emotional) hunger as well.
For some of my clients, it can be difficult to tell the difference. But if you are hungry because you’re stressed or bored, food is not what your body needs in the moment. To give your body what it needs, you should instead do a stress relieving activity or something fun!
Alex is a Registered Dietitian at the private practice Courage to Nourish in Howard County and College Park, Maryland. Alex’s goal is to assist her clients in discovering a life-long healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Alex is a proud and passionate anti-diet and Health At Every Size © advocate. Outside of counseling clients, Alex enjoys cooking (especially Italian foods), journaling, hiking and exploring Washington, DC. Website