By Amelia Sherry, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Parents can prevent eating disorders, but it’s something most of us need to learn. Thanks to culture and upbringing, we all come to the table with a certain set of biases. Our beliefs about food and eating are often subconscious.
For example, most people believe that a slim body is a healthy one. And most believe that people who pay close attention to what they eat are healthier than those who are more carefree when it comes to food.
As a pediatric dietitian and certified diabetes counselor and educator, I’ve found that these biases rarely have the intended effect. And they rarely help our kids develop a taste for swiss chard. Instead, these beliefs are one of the biggest barriers my clients and I face. They get in the way when our shared goal is helping their child have a happy, healthy relationship with food.
The reason? These beliefs come from a good place. But when we transmit these biases onto our kids we inadvertently put a lot of pressure on their eating. This makes them more prone to disorder and dysfunction.
The good news is that parents can be more intentional about the language we use and the comments we make. We can reduce unnecessary pressure about food, eating, health and weight. And this will help kids develop a relationship with food that will have a better impact on their overall well-being.
How to prevent eating disorders
Here are a few tips for rethinking our “food speak” to prevent eating disorders and disordered eating. These approaches will support your child to feel good about what and how much they eat. Parents who become more aware of the attitudes they pass to their kids about food tend to raise kids who are well-nourished in more ways than one.
Go With an All Foods Fit Approach
By keeping virtue out of the kitchen
Avoid words like “bad,” “junk,” and “unhealthy” when it comes to talking about foods and drinks. Labeling certain foods as evil can trigger feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, and shame in kids. This is especially true if you’re referring to something that child really likes or wants to eat.
The truth is ALL foods can provide some nourishment. And while we may choose to offer our kids certain foods over others, identifying the ones you want them to avoid as “bad” does more harm than good.
Another reason to avoid name-calling when it comes to food: When we do this, we inadvertently teach our kids to judge not only themselves but others who eat them as “wrong,” “bad,” or deserving of shame, too. Imagine a friend or classmate eats a lunch or snack food that your child feels you’d disapprove of. They may pass that unfair judgment on them, too.
Help Figure Out the Right Portion Size
By nixing “one more bite” and “that’s enough” comments and requests
When our child tells us they’re finished or that they’re still hungry, as a parent we need to believe them! This helps your child develop body trust. It also allows them the freedom to stay in tune with their innate physical ability to self-regulate.
We are all born with an innate ability to regulate our food intake. We can read our body signals such as hunger, appetite, and satiety. This ability is something our children might lose touch with as they grow if caregivers or culture interfere with it.
It’s unfortunately common for healthcare professionals, teachers, celebrities, friends, and extended family to make unhelpful comments about food and eating. The main thing is that we want to limit comments about “good” or “bad” eating and focus instead on internal cues. This is protective against disordered eating and one way we can prevent eating disorders.
Trust kids’ bodies
It’s ultimately unhelpful to prompt our kids to eat more when they feel full or stop before they feel satisfied. Because it teaches them to distrust their own body and listen to outside cues instead of their body.
In the short term, it can be a ding to self-esteem. Kids might learn that “feeling hungry is bad and can’t be trusted.” Other negative thoughts like “I’m not good at eating” are also harmful. In the long term, it teaches kids that they can’t listen to signals from inside their bodies. This can set them up for disordered eating and eating disorders. To prevent eating disorders, they need to be attuned to their internal appetite.
When a child has an eating disorder their internal appetite signals have been disrupted. They can relearn this critical connection during recovery with the help of an eating disorder therapist and dietitian.
Help Kids Reach a Healthy Weight
By cutting out weight talk
Lots of parents treat weight as a problem to be solved. But studies show that their kids have more disordered eating habits. They are more likely to have eating disorder behaviors like restrictive eating and binge eating.
They also suffer from lower self-esteem, more body dissatisfaction, and are more likely to be depressed. This is regardless of whether that child is underweight, normal weight, or overweight. It also occurs whether the parent is talking about their child’s weight or their own.
Studies have also shown that kids who grow up in families with negative weight talk have higher weight than those who don’t. That’s right. Just talking negatively about weight can impact your kids’ future weight.
Moms aren’t the only ones who impact their kids’ feelings about eating. This effect is even stronger for fathers who promote eating a certain way to lose weight or avoid gaining weight. The negative effects of weight talk are powerful. Their impact has been shown to last at least 15 years, following our kids into adulthood.
See our scientific library for the data behind these statements
To prevent eating disorders and disordered eating, avoid making weight an enemy to be conquered. This approach will help your child maintain a BMI that is natural and meant for them. Bodies are diverse, and the best approach is to accept their natural signals rather than control them.
Help Kids Have Better Eating Esteem
By taking note of your tone
When talking to kids about food, be gentle, kind, and guiding, as well as very direct. Children are more likely to listen to directions when they feel respected, supported, and when they clearly understand your request.
Of course, the opposite is also true. Kids are less likely to comply with requests that are critical, shaming, and unclear. Worse? Such comments are known to lower self-esteem and cause overeating.
For example, “Sweetheart, please take just one scoop so there is enough for everyone,” works much better than, “Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of calories!”, “After today, we can both start a diet”, or “You’ve been eating too much lately.”
Make Family Meals Easier
By being curious
Does your child have a particular eating habit you hate? Or is their focus on carbs or sugar or snack foods something you often worry about? While it’s natural to be concerned about eating habits, if they pick up on your stress or concern it could make the situation worse.
Instead, ask yourself the “why” behind your worry and talk about it with a partner or professional. Letting your own eating or weight concerns get the best of you during meals can ramp up stress. This impacts everyone who is eating, including very young children.
Research shows that even infants can pick up on stress during feeding. So if you approach meals with negative emotions, there’s a chance your child will feel anxious or afraid, too.
Keep it calm
Big emotions can also dis-regulate eating, decreasing or increasing your child’s appetite. This may inadvertently contribute more to whatever issue you’re concerned about instead of improving it.
If you do have a concern that you think needs to be addressed, take them away from the table. You can talk about your concerns and the most positive approaches to feeding with a pediatric dietitian and/or family therapist. They can provide positive ways to approach food and eating.
While your child’s weight and shape will change as they age, their thoughts and feelings about foods and eating will stay with them into adulthood. Strive to create an attitude that’s relaxed and positive to prevent eating disorders. This will also support them in feeling good about food and their body.
Amelia Sherry has a Masters in Public Health Nutrition, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Diabetes Counselor & Educator (CDCES). She’s also the founder of NourishHer.com, a source of information and inspiration for mothers who want to raise girls protected from diet culture. Visit the site for access to free articles, downloads, and workshops.