If you read parenting magazines, follow social media outlets, and watch the morning shows you’ve certainly seen a lot of news about the growing incidence of childhood obesity. What you may not know is that the prevalence of eating disorders in children and adolescents is also rising. There are a lot of factors that affect children’s weight and eating issues, but one thing is for sure – parental attitudes about their own weight and their children’s weight play a role. Surely you’ve been to lunch and heard women order salad with dressing on the side or a burger without a bun. Maybe you’re a parent who doesn’t believe that kids should eat cake or cookies, even on occasion. These types of food rules impact your children, more than you may realize.
Research shows that a mother’s feeding habits and perceptions of a child’s risk of becoming overweight can influence the way her child eats and his or her weight. When parents exert excessive control over what and how much a child eats, they are contributing to the child’s risk of being overweight. Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, a fellow registered dietitian and founder of the family nutrition blog Raise Healthy Eaters agrees: “Restriction is the feeding practice most associated with higher weights in children.”
So as parents, especially mothers, what can you do to avoid creating eating issues in your children?
First things first, check in with yourself and your own eating issues. This can be challenging, but it’s important to be honest with yourself about your relationship with food and where your food and eating issues stem from. If you’re worried your child is eating too much or seems bigger than other children his or her age, ask the pediatrician. If the concerns remain despite a good report from the doctor, it may be worth a trip to a dietitian or a therapist to gain some insight into your eating and weight issues.
Once you know where your feelings about feeding are coming from, it will be easier for you to be a role model. Just as you model other behaviors like saying please and thank you, so too you need to model a healthy relationship with food. And that doesn’t mean an all-or-nothing approach. Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Make the base of your family’s diet healthy, balanced meals, but show children that there is a place for all foods, including treats, in moderation. Avoid classifying foods as “good” and “bad.”
- Be active. Young children are filled with energy and are naturally active, but as they get older, children will be happy to sit home and watch TV or play their Wii. Show your children that exercise, playing sports, and staying strong are important throughout the lifecycle.
- Make it about health, not weight. When you promote eating healthfully and exercising, explain to children that they need to do that to stay strong and healthy so they can do well in school and continue growing.
- Model a positive body image. Avoid saying things like “I shouldn’t have eaten that” or “do I look fat in these jeans.” These types of comments get embedded in children’s heads and can lead to disordered eating and negative feelings about their body and food as they mature.
- No matter what, show your child love and acceptance for who he or she is. Jacobsen says “children need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are loved and accepted for who they are regardless of their weight, size, and shape.”
Feeding children is not easy. It comes with all sorts of underlying feelings and concerns, and like everything else with parenting, there isn’t one right way to do it. Registered dietitian and pediatric nutrition specialist Jill Castle says “not only do parents need to know WHAT to feed their kids, they need to know HOW to do it in a positive manner, and WHY kids eat the way they do.“ Easier said than done. But soon it may not be as difficult. Jacobsen and Castle started the Fearless Feeding Community to get parents talking about these challenges and the best way to deal with them. I personally can’t wait for their book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School to be published this April. It is a long overdue and much needed resource for all parents.
Do you have concerns about feeding your children? Contact Jessica privately if you’d like to discuss.
Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN, the founder of Nutritioulicious, a nutrition consulting practice, and the co-author of “We Can Cook: Introduce Your Child to the Joy of Cooking with 75 Simple Recipes and Activities,” lives in New Rochelle and has 13 month old twin daughters. As a dietitian and mom, she’s well aware of the issues feeding children bring up for all parents.