How parents can build healthy food habits & body image in kids

Parents in our culture all worry about one thing consistently: their kids’ food and body. As surprising as it may seem, this worry, which is dramatically increasing every year, is largely unnecessary and often results in poor health – the exact opposite of what we actually want!

From the time they are born, we are bombarded with messages about what our children need to eat and how their bodies need to perform in order to achieve “good parenting.”

But what would you do if you knew that worrying about your kids’ food and weight is actually less healthy for them than if you didn’t? Would you feel anxious? Relieved? Probably a little bit of both.

Food as communication

Hunger is the very first way that our kids communicate with us. Their need for physical nourishment collides with their need for parental nurturing, and most parents respond enthusiastically to their kids’ hunger, feeding them on demand and doing their best to respond to hunger and fullness cues.

But the more verbal our children become, the less we honor the connection between their hunger for food and their hunger for connection with us. The truth is that almost all humans maintain a strong link between physical hunger and the need for care and attention for life. But our culture looks down on this connection and believes we should completely separate physical hunger from emotional hunger.

We tend to live in fear of “overfeeding” our children, which we believe is a sign of poor parenting. This can lead to serious eating issues in our children, ranging from foodphobia (avoidance of and fear of food) to eating in the absence of physical hunger and beyond fullness (binge eating). Both of these extremes (and everything in between) are obviously problems, but we can often solve them more easily if we see them as a child’s primitive attempt to communicate with their parents.

When we consider how a child may be communicating with us via food, we can learn how to feed them physically and emotionally.

Lots of children are, unfortunately, being raised in environments in which food is restricted and withheld by parents. The restriction may be overt or subconscious, but if restriction of food is happening, the child feels hungrier on both a physical and emotional level. This can lead to serious food and emotional repercussions.

If a child has a disordered relationship with food, it may be a sign that they need something more from the parent-child relationship. Or it may simply be that they are hungry because their food has been restricted. The solution is (almost always) to offer them more food and provide more emotional nourishment.

Body image as a sign of pain

Bad body image is so common that it’s virtually impossible to meet a person over the age of 8 who doesn’t wish for something different about their bodies. But this is not healthy or normal, and no parent wishes this upon their child. Nonetheless, we are often part of the bad body image our children experience, and even if we have managed to avoid saying anything that encourages bad body image, we may not have learned to counteract the terrible body image messages that our child is fed every day.

Our society has become increasingly obsessed with weight, body size, and body performance. This obsession was previously primarily focused on females, but males are increasingly body-conscious and suffering the consequences that we have seen in females for decades.

Parents are made to feel responsible for their kids’ weight, even though a person’s weight is almost as intractable as their shoe size or height, neither of which parents take responsibility for other than basic genetics.

As anyone who has lost weight will tell you, before they lost the weight, they thought that weight loss would change their lives for the better, and that they would suddenly be happier and more loved as a result of losing weight. But they will also tell you that once they lost the weight, they did not see any emotional improvement. They did not suddenly become more confident, happy and attractive to others. In fact, they most often feel increased stress due to the near-constant fear about the probability of weight regain while still suffering from the same feelings of inadequacy that they had before they lost the weight.

Body image in our society has become a way to communicate fundamental unease with the self.

A person can be physically healthy but still seek weight loss because we have been convinced that weight loss is the most influential route to happiness. But it’s not. Emotional needs are never met when we change our bodies – they are only achieved when we actually meet our emotional needs.

Bad body image is a signal of unease with the self. If your child has a poor body image, they do not need to lose weight, they need help in bolstering their sense of identity, self-worth, and self-esteem.

What parents can do to build healthy food habits and body image in kids

The biggest issue we hear from parents is that they really want to build healthy food habits and positive body image in their kids, but they don’t know what to do or where to start. This is understandable. Those of us who are doing this work are cultural outliers – our parenting behavior is not “normal” in our society (unfortunately!).

But you should know that it is possible to have kids who have a truly healthy relationship with food and their bodies. It’s not easy, and it’s not perfect (almost everyone occasionally under- and over-eats, and almost everyone has bad body days), but it’s possible.

Here are three ways you can help your kids build a healthy relationship with food and their bodies:

1. Meet their emotional needs. Parents are imperfect. We know this. But it’s not enough to throw our hands up and say it’s just too hard or our kid wants nothing to do with us. We are parents, and we simply must find a way to meet our kids’ emotional needs. Even if they act like they don’t need us to do this for them, they do. It’s a hard-wired need inside of every human being.

Start by reading this excellent book about the parent-child relationship: Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté.

Take it further by getting some therapy for yourself. A therapist can help you untangle your own emotional needs from your ability to care for your child’s emotional needs. A psychodynamic therapist will help you go back into your past and heal past wounds, while a cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) will focus on immediate tools to help you parent more effectively.

2. Feed them effectively. We get a lot of confusing, unhealthy, and damaging messages about food in our society. It takes tremendous effort to overcome these horrible messages and feed a child who is not afraid of or overly-dependent on food. But you can join the growing club of parents who are doing this every day.

Start by reading this excellent book about feeding children: Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, by Ellyn Satter.

Take it further by seeking the support of a qualified non-diet Registered Dietitian (RD) who recognizes the connection between food and emotional nourishment and can guide you towards building a more food-positive environment in your home. We have a directory of qualified non-diet RDs. If there isn’t one in your area, almost all of them will work with you remotely via phone.

3. Support a positive body image. Our society is filled with awful messages about what bodies are supposed to look like, but since 95% of our population does not meet the ideal that we see in the media, almost all of us feel badly about our bodies. Parents cannot prevent bad body days completely, because it’s virtually impossible to maintain a 100% positive body image given the environment in which we live. But we can make a tremendous difference in how our kids feel about their bodies.

Start by reading this excellent book, which will help you release any unhealthy thoughts and worries you have about your child’s weight: Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, by Linda Bacon.

Take it further by taking a deep dive into body positivity and reading this fun and uplifting book: Body Positive Power: Because Life Is Already Happening and You Don’t Need Flat Abs to Live It, by Megan Jayne Crabbe, also known as @bodyposipanda on Instagram.

Make a difference in your child’s health for life

Taking these three actions will make a difference in your child’s lifelong health. If you truly care about your child’s health, then one of your parenting goals should be to raise a child who never, ever diets or pursues any form of intentional weight loss. This is because intentional weight loss is shown to be more damaging to their health than staying at whatever weight they are before weight loss. If you need more proof of this, read Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, by Traci Mann.

If you can, please seek support from a qualified dietitian who can help you navigate food and body issues. We created the first directory of non-diet dietitians because we know that every single parent will benefit from at least one consultation with a professional who can help start to untangle our unhealthy foodphobia and fatphobia.

If you are skeptical about our statements about food and body and their true impact on health, please check out our research library of the science behind what we say.

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