As a parent, you want your child to grow up happy. You want him or her to make (overall) smart decisions and be successful. You probably also want your child to grow up “healthy.”
The pressure to raise healthy kids
There is no denying that health and wellness are at the forefront of our minds. We are constantly bombarded by health and wellness information and trends. Celebrities are talking about it. Friends and family are talking about it. Doctors are talking about it.
We’re encouraged to eat certain foods and stay away from others. We’re told that certain foods “speed up metabolism,” while others “slow it down.” We have detoxes and juice cleanses pushed on us. And it seems if you don’t try to follow some of these food trends, you’re doing something wrong. Food and diet culture is huge! After all, the diet industry is worth almost $70 billion.
Because of the pressure society puts on us to be “healthy,” many parents worry about their child’s eating habits. Whether he/she is eating too much of one food and not enough of another. Parents worry their child is gaining “too much” weight. Or even worry their child might be “addicted” to food. And who could blame these parents. They are constantly made to feel they aren’t “good enough” as a parent if they aren’t making sure their kids are eating perfectly.
Impossible food standards
I’ve found that many parents become hyper-aware about what their child is eating. Especially if they feel like their child is eating “too much” and their child lives in a larger body. Hyper-awareness surrounding foods may include:
- making comments about good foods and bad foods,
- commenting on the amount of food a child is eating,
- comments on weight, and
- asking a child to eat certain foods before other foods (veggies before dessert), etc.
I completely understand why a parent may do this because of the ridiculous amount of pressure they feel to raise “healthy” families. But, unfortunately, this often backfires. I’ve found this hyper-awareness surrounding food causes children to become more obsessed with their bodies, begin dieting at an earlier age, and possibly sneak/hide food from their parents, especially those foods they consider to be “junk foods.” (PS: I personally don’t use the words “junk foods” with my clients because I believe all foods should be placed on the same playing field. “Good” food / “bad” food language is often harmful
Overeating and addiction
In my office, I often hear parents’ concerns about children “overeating” or being “addicted” to certain foods. In these situations, as hard as it might be, I ask parents to do their best in avoiding comments and to continue to allow their child to self-regulate.
It’s important we don’t think of any foods as “bad” or “addictive” but instead recognize food as a substance like oxygen and water. You most likely don’t worry about your child overconsuming either of those, and
First, children are the most intuitive eaters out there. More often than not, your child is actually not “overeating,” but is fueling his/her body with the nutrients he/she needs. We need to be careful and avoid pathologizing certain eating patterns, to avoid the possibility of a child internalizing that guilt and shame.
Second, food is not an addictive substance and we have research that shows this. People may feel addicted to certain foods if they have been deprived of eating them. For example, you tell yourself you’re not going to have sweets. Maybe you don’t eat sweets for a few days or even weeks or months. But, eventually, you’ll be presented with the opportunity to eat sweets again. The moment you eat sweets, it’s totally possible you may feel like you can’t stop.
But this isn’t because you’re “addicted” to sugar. It’s because you have been physically and emotionally deprived from sugar. This same thing happens with kids. It’s important we allow kids to have a wide variety of foods.
How to feed a child
You may be thinking, but what if my child needs to eat healthier? Or what if I feel like my child is eating too much? How can I promote balanced and nutritious eating without triggering negative body image or food thoughts?
Here are my tips
1. Feed their appetite: Appetites vary for many different reasons for different people and in different stages of life. Sometimes children will feel more hungry and eat more food than “normal” for no apparent reason. On the flip side, sometimes children won’t feel hungry at all and will eat way less than “normal.” It’s important to let your child eat how much or how little they want according to their individual hunger cues, not an arbitrary perception of what they “should” eat. This will help them to stay more in tune with their hunger and fullness signals and support long-term health.
*There is one caveat. If you notice your child is eating significantly less and cutting out foods they previously used to love, this definitely is a concern. Please talk to a health care provider about this.
2. Have a wide variety of foods available: I recommend having a wide variety of foods in your kitchen for your child to eat. You can present these different foods during snack time. For example, you may want to consider putting out some food for when your child gets home from school. The key here is allowing your child to choose what he/she is in the mood for. So whether they choose animal crackers, chips with guacamole, or carrots with hummus, it’s their choice.
3. Monitor emotional changes: If you notice a change in your child’s eating or weight, I recommend you consider whether you notice a change in their emotions. Is your child more withdrawn than usual? Is he/she stressing about things they may not normally stress about? Are they hanging out with friends less? Are they exhibiting increased anxiety around food? Sometimes a change in eating and weight is a sign that something else is happening. I recommend avoiding commenting on food/weight and instead ask them about feelings. If your child is happy and acting as they always do, then weight gain is typically not a concern.
4. Talk less, model more: Children learn how to eat from the adults in their lives. They also learn how to either appreciate or criticize their bodies. Do your best to eat a wide variety of foods along with your child. This includes meat, fish, veggies, fruit, dessert, fried foods, grains, and dairy products. Also, please be mindful about the negative comments made about your body or someone else’s. Negative body comments are easily internalized by children. It’s important to model body appreciation and respect. You can do this by talking about how much your body does for you and by being compassionate toward the physical aspects you may not like about your body.
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