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‘I’m an Eating Disorder Therapist and RD, and Here Are 6 Things That I Would Never Say to Children About Food’

Kids are like sponges, but you can help them absorb good messages.

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Diet culture is the only thing that closely resembles the Greek mythological creature known as the “Hydra”; anytime a valiant hero cuts off one head, several others sprout in its place. Pushing back against cultural conventions that pressure you to look a specific way, weigh a certain amount, and internalize a variety of attitudes or moral convictions about foods can feel like a Sisyphean fight for those attempting to improve their relationships with their bodies and food. While navigating the sea of online information can be challenging, some eating disorder (ED) specialized dietitian suggestions for discussing food with children may be a good place to start.

In a world of face filters, cosmetic surgery trends, and the sly way that diet culture can change and alter itself into new, seemingly great trends with each passing year, it can be difficult to foster a pleasant and beneficial relationship with food and your body. There is undoubtedly a way to build a lovely, stable, and long-lasting relationship with food and your body, despite what the multibillion dollar diet product business would have you believe. It is definitely doable, but not always simple.

Why is it crucial to pay attention to the messages we send about food?

Starting early in life is one of the finest strategies to promote and cultivate healthy eating and body image values. This is because many people find that they struggle more with these issues because of the lessons they were given about them when they were young. When attempting to encourage a healthy relationship with eating and cooking, it can occasionally be beneficial to have the opportunity to explain why specific statements about food are unhelpful.

Diet culture has the drawback that no one is innately resistant to it. In an effort to teach their children about nutrition, some people may pass down unfavorable messages about food.

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An experienced registered dietician offers advice on how to communicate to children about eating.

To that aim, we asked a specialist in the field to break down some common food-related comments and explain why she’d never say them to kids. This expert’s area of expertise is speaking to kids about eating in a way that fosters a healthy relationship with their body and food. Here, Bellevue, Washington-based registered dietitian Rachel Larkey, MS, RD, CDN, CLC, discusses the messaging that should absolutely be avoided while dealing with disordered eating. She also works as the dietary manager for the inpatient program for eating disorders in Bellevue.

1. “(Insert food here) is very unhealthy.”

According to Larkey, “When we place moral value on food, we lose sight of the many different reasons we eat—nutrition, culture, celebration, comfort, taste, pleasure, and so on—and the many wonderful things food gives to us, even when it doesn’t fit the societal definition of “healthy,” which is frequently based in a whitewashed and reductive version of nutritional science anyway. This message “sets the foundation for kids to believe that foods are intrinsically good or terrible, which can be the first step into they themselves feeling good or bad for consuming a certain meal,” according to the study.

Simply presenting alternatives would be sufficient to reframe this. Try saying, “A cupcake isn’t on the menu today,” if your youngster wants a cupcake for breakfast and you’d really prefer them to avoid a sugar crash at 10 a.m. What do you want from these alternative options? (You can then make a list of many items you want them to try. If your child asks whether a food is “good” or “bad,” this is an excellent opportunity to discuss the several reasons humans eat food that are unrelated to nutrition and how food is neutral, says Larkey.

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2. “You’re getting bigger and you shouldn’t be eating that,”

In addition to the rather apparent consequences this could have, it’s important to note that adults frequently say things like this to kids, teenagers, and other adults. It communicates the message that a) having a larger body is incorrect, b) food and their food choices are the reason why their body is changing, and c) weight gain is bad and should be avoided, according to Larkey. This is especially true when it comes to the context of what children eat.

Larkey says that in her experience, people who have experienced comments about their changing bodies as children frequently have body-consciousness, embarrassment about or fear of gaining weight, and food restriction to maintain a particular weight, sometimes leading to eating disorders. Larkey doesn’t suggest another way to phrase this idea because it’s recommended to avoid making any sort of harsh remarks about someone’s weight at all.

3. “You’re very beautiful/gorgeous/pretty!” (Without more adulation)

Larkey argues that it’s highly usual for children who are assigned female at birth to receive compliments that are overwhelmingly about their physical look or beauty above their other traits, even if appearance-based remarks are acceptable when used sparingly. She continues by saying that this can give children the impression that their value is determined by how they look or if they can conform to society’s restricted definition of what it means to be “pretty,” which often entails being little and slender.

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“Many of my patients have spent their entire lives receiving accolades on their attractiveness and thinness. If and when their bodies change, this can create considerable distress since, according to Larkey, it’s difficult to determine where one’s self-worth lies if it has always been based solely on appearance. This could lead to feelings of low self-esteem or the emergence of an eating disorder.

Compliments that are not based on looks can help people develop a feeling of self-worth and self-esteem that is unrelated to appearance. These types of compliments could be directed at your abilities, intelligence, perseverance, bravery, problem-solving skills, humor, or strength.

4. “You must finish your meal before you can get up from the table.”

Children are intuitive eaters by nature. According to Larkey, they typically pick up on their body cues for comfort, satiety, and hunger pretty well. “When we pressure kids to eat everything on their plate even if they are full, it might give the message that they should ignore their hunger and fullness cues and it furthers their disconnection from their bodies,” says a registered dietitian.

According to Larkey, when she visits clients who have heard this, they frequently struggle with feelings of guilt related to food waste, eating past the point of fullness, and overeating as well. According to Larkey, this can occasionally lead to compensatory behaviors like purging, excessive exercise, or limitation to “make up” for eating too much.

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According to Larkey, a wonderful substitute for this is to help kids learn to connect with their bodies’ cues. There are several reasons why a youngster might want to leave the table without eating or without finishing everything on their plate. It’s a terrific opportunity to promote introspection and listening to their body’s cues, she says, to ask children to pause and consider what they are experiencing or how their body is letting them know they are full.

Are you certain you want to eat that or more?

According to Larkey, the way this is phrased tells children that consuming more of anything or a certain dish is bad. It reinforces the notion that some foods are healthy and others bad and that there is a recommended serving size. She claims that, in truth, our daily nutritional needs vary not only from person to person but also within the same individual.

According to Larkey, this attitude might cause people to be apprehensive about eating in front of others and to withdraw during mealtimes in order to escape criticism. Additionally, it might create a bad association between wanting seconds when you’re not really hungry, which can cause restriction or feelings of guilt and shame when you do eat more or want more food.

6. Any criticism of your physique from others

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Last but not least, children are like sponges, according to Larkey. “Parents are their children’s heroes and best friends so frequently. Their favorite person is in their body, so when they learn that they despise it, it distresses them. They constantly pay attention to what we say and imitate it. If kids overhear us complaining about our bodies, such as “wow, my stomach looks dreadful” or “gosh, I’m getting so huge,” it teaches them to despise or fear fatness in general and sends the message that there are “good” and “bad” bodies and that they should carefully examine their own bodies.

One of the most typical consumer complaints, according to Larkey, is this one. We all grew up in societies with strict beauty standards, so it seems natural that we could unconsciously form judgments about our own bodies based on what we have learned, according to the author.

What to keep in mind when using these pediatric dietitian tips

Many of Larkey’s patients saw their parents criticize their own bodies when they were young and began to believe that their bodies were “wrong.” This is especially true for Larkey’s clients who are bigger than their parents, who could think, “Well, if they hate their body for its size, and I’m bigger, I should obviously hate mine,” after hearing this criticism.

If you can, Larkey advises catching yourself and changing your course. For instance, you might say, “I noticed I just said something incredibly cruel about myself, and that’s not right. Everybody has a wonderful body, and I’m working on enjoying mine more. I’ll say this the following time: .” ‘ Try complimenting your physical attributes, such as “I’m so delighted my muscular legs get me to so many wonderful locations with you!” Larkey furthers.

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Parenting is special, difficult, messy, draining, and individual. Larkey emphasizes that if you’ve said any or all of these things to your children, you’re not a horrible parent. Everyone is making the best of the resources they have, some of which may have been given to us by our parents or ancestors. Larkey emphasizes that it is never too late to begin educating children about the diversity of bodies and how food can be neutral. There is a lot of shame in the parenting community, but just by trying to learn more, you’re doing a great job. These nutritionist advice for kids will support you on your journey.