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Putting an End to Confusion
about Healthy Eating
By Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP

Bombarded by news of ever-changing fad diets and conflicting messages in the media about how to stay physically fit and live longer, parents are confused about what healthy eating is, and what it isn’t. Because parents exert so great an influence in shaping their child’s attitudes towards food, it stands to reason that many kids are similarly confused and misinformed, struggling to eat and manage their weight healthfully. Six million kids are obese in America today. Pro-anorexic web sites have proliferated in the face of an enthusiastic population of young viewers seeking gimmicks for losing weight and staying thin, even if it means becoming ill. Close to ninety percent of the eleven million victims of eating disorders in our society today are young people under the age of twenty.

Challenges for parents

  • Many parents assume that fat-free eating is healthy eating, that skipping meals is a short cut to becoming trim. These assumptions are incorrect.
  • Some parents do not realize that eating or exercise regimes that work well for parents, when taken out of the context of age and health requirements, do not necessarily apply to children; in fact they may be harmful. As an example, children need fat in their diets to support a maturing neurological system throughout the childhood, adolescent, and young adult years. Some kinds of fats are healthier for the body than others, but a fat free diet for a child can be damaging to his health.
  • Parents often believe that by communicating honestly with their children about “uncomfortable” topics such as weight management, food, and eating, they could create more problems than they solve, or even lose their child’s love. As a result, they may be inclined to pretend not to notice when their child is struggling with food. A problem cannot be resolved unless and until it is identified and confronted.
  • Parents who confuse authoritative parenting with authoritarian parenting need to reconsider their role, and fulfill their responsibility to, their child; Children become emotionally resilient and secure through authoritative parenting, where parents assert appropriate external limits for the child until such time as the child is capable of assuming limit-setting and self-controls under his or her own volition.
  • By imposing too many limits during the growing up years, authoritarian parents deprive children of the opportunity to learn to regulate themselves. The child who is confined by too many external limits grows up to feel untrustworthy and helpless and may ultimately turn to an eating disorder to establish a sense of power and identity.
  • Likewise, the child who enjoys too few external controls may feel out of control, overwhelmed, and frightened by her own sense of indiscriminate power; she may ultimately turn to an eating disorder to provide a sense of containment and security.


Parents need to become informed

  • Parents need to learn what healthy eating is and to practice it, modeling for their child a consistently healthy relationship with food. Healthy eating is diversified, balanced eating, that takes the form of at least three meals a day, each containing all of the food groups. There are no bad foods; what is bad is extreme, and immoderate eating, and/or inflexible attitudes towards food and weight management. Food is not fattening, nor is it the “enemy.” Fat free eating and dieting are not healthy eating lifestyles for children. Parents need to understand that the body is not an object whose size and shape can be controlled or predetermined by food consumption.
  • Parents need to understand that the body is a wise and reliable machine; through efficient fueling and consistent care, the body can be counted upon to remain healthy and fit, to function efficiently and effectively from the inside out. For example, a female’s body cannot be healthy unless it is menstruating.
  • Through listening, parents need to learn to “know” their child; through listening, skillful parents can also help the child come to know herself better.
  • Parents must learn to assign significance to every comment a child makes. If the child makes negative comments about her shape or size, parents must not dismiss them, even if they seem irrational; rather, parents should use these comments to enhance their connection with the child. (The parent might consider asking the youngster what she assumes would make her look better, why, and how she envisions trying to accomplish her weight- or food- related goals.)
  • Parents need to become acutely aware of their own body image concerns and attitudes that may inadvertently stimulate their child’s fears, distortions and misconceptions. Parents must be careful not to be overly self-critical, complaining about their own weight in front of their child.


Children need guidance. They need reality and truth, structure and limits, for out of these constructs come freedom. Children need exposure to rational decision-making and good values. They need to be educated. Children need their parents. If what they need is not forthcoming from that source, they will seek what they require from other influences, such as peers or the media. Nature abhors a vacuum.


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