assisting kids in creating a thoughtful relationship with food


A few weeks ago, as I was leaving my neighborhood post office, I came across a young mother and her young daughter. The young girl was complaining and appeared to be around five years old. The mother said to her, “You can have a cupcake when we get home if you’ll just stop crying.”

The mother’s comment initially appeared to be unimportant. The fact that the mom and the young girl were both overweight may not have had any bearing on the comment at all. What was that mother unintentionally teaching her daughter, I couldn’t help but wonder.

Was she imparting the idea that treats are a reward for good behavior to the child? Was she imparting to her the idea that eating treats can help her cope with difficult feelings? If the child was receiving either one or both of these messages, she might struggle with weight issues for the rest of her life as a result of a bad relationship with food.

A new client recently inquired about my counseling services due to her compulsive overeating. She claimed to be fully aware of how this behavior—and the associated weight—came about. “When my brother and I were young, our parents taught us that the first person to clean their plate received permission to eat from the other sibling’s plate.” What message did she receive regarding food? Maybe it was, “Eat as much as you can and as quickly as you can to make room for more food.”

How many kids have been persuaded or forced to eat more than they want and not because they are actually hungry or full? “The entire meal must be consumed before you can leave the table.” “You must eat because other kids are starving somewhere.” “If you want to feel better, come here and have some cookies.” “Aunt Jane will believe you don’t enjoy her cooking if you don’t eat that.” Such messages give food illogical meanings.

I’m a life coach and counselor with a focus on habit change and stress reduction. As you can probably infer, I assist clients who are battling a variety of emotional and behavioral habits, and I have a sizable number of clients who battle obesity and binge eating on a regular basis.

I’ve had the chance to ask hundreds of clients about their eating habits and perspectives on food as a result of my work. It is not surprising to me that many obese people have unhealthy relationships with food, frequently as a result of prejudices they acquired as children.

Regarding food as a source of energy and nutrition is having an intelligent relationship with it. Therefore, signals to eat can include hunger or a drop in energy or focus. People who eat in response to these signals are aware of what their bodies need in terms of nutrition. Without much thought, they choose their foods and portion sizes accordingly. They eat when they are in the mood for food and stop when they are full. To maintain a healthy weight, they automatically balance their energy intake and expenditure. Those who are successful in this are unquestionably rare in America.

People who have an unhealthy relationship with food do not eat in accordance with their physiological needs or in response to their body’s cues. Instead, they eat troubled emotions away, particularly foods high in fat, sugar, and starch. Not for nutrition, they eat for comfort. They see food as a treat after achieving something or overcoming a challenge. They no longer experience the physical cues that indicate hunger, so instead they eat in response to environmental cues like the time of day, the presence of other people eating, the smell of food, a food advertisement, or a magazine cover featuring a decadent dessert.

They lack an intuitive sense of the proper portion size because they are no longer in touch with the bodily sensations that signal fullness. They overeat, taking in too many extra calories that are then stored as fat because they don’t know when to stop eating.

Obesity is caused by these eating patterns. As a result of their associations with convenience, comfort, and stress relief, these habits are resistant to change. They take the place of the challenging tasks of developing self-awareness and self-discipline, facing challenging emotions, and learning effective coping mechanisms, which are things that many people attend therapy to learn.

Of course, other factors also play a role in obesity. A readily available supply of inexpensive, processed foods with low nutritional value and a high content of sugars, starches, and fillers is one contributing factor. Sedentary behavior, genetic predispositions, specific medications, specific illnesses, and poor sleep patterns round out the list.

However, given that childhood obesity is more common than it has ever been, parents may want to think about the food messages they give their kids. Here are three things they would do well to teach, by word, deed, and example:

• Nutrition and energy are provided by food. Nutritiousness varies between different foods.

When teaching their children this, parents will make sure to stock up on a variety of healthy foods for meals and snacks, introducing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources to their young ones’ palates. Starchy and sugary foods should not be consumed frequently; rather, they should be reserved for special occasions.

• Eat whenever you are hungry. When you’re full, stop eating.

Parents who practice this will serve their kids portions that are appropriate for their age and prevent fights over food. Suzy may leave the table if she chooses not to eat. Offer a wholesome snack if she becomes hungry later.

• Let’s talk about it, weigh your options, and come up with a workable solution if you’re feeling stressed.

Talking through issues with a child who is upset requires more time and effort than simply giving them a treat or a toy. But it’s important to teach kids age-appropriate problem-solving techniques.

Finally, it may be time to look into your own beliefs about food and its meanings if you tend to overeat because you eat in response to external cues in your immediate environment, to soothe difficult emotions, to reward yourself, or because you don’t know when to stop. Any unintentional messages you learned about food as a child may need to be reconsidered and replaced. This could help you develop a wise relationship with food.

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