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Raising Daughters and Sons to Become Healthy Eaters

By Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP


For many of our children today, gymnasiums, health clubs, play grounds and lunch rooms become breeding grounds for disturbed attitudes about food and eating, thinness, and body image, catapulting them into dieting behaviors, disordered eating, and for some, the onset of a clinical eating disorder.  In one survey, young girls claimed that they would rather have cancer, see their parents divorce, or live through a nuclear holocaust than to be fat.  It has been reported that half of all first graders are on diets and that by the time girls get to the eight grade, 80 percent of them have attempted to lose weight by restricting food. A great many youngsters today believe that if they are not stick-thin they will be rejected by peers, unloved, and lonely. Others believe that the very process of eating could lead to a loss of self-control, not only regarding food, but in other life spheres as well.  

These children have become victims…of misunderstanding and of themselves, of societal myths and pressures and radical fear.  They have lost trust in themselves, becoming doubtful about their own capacity to self-regulate and solve problems.  Those with a genetic propensity to develop a clinical eating disorder may ultimately come to rely on the illusion of security and self-control offered by the onset of anorexia or bulimia.


Understanding healthy eating

No one is more influential in determining the quality of their child’s relationship with food, eating and bodily self than parents. Unfortunately, many parents, like their children, have lost the vision of what healthy eating really is. Healthy eating is the ability to eat anything, at anytime...as long as it is with moderation. Healthy eating consists of three nutritionally dense meals a day, including foods that are varied and that represent all the food groups.  Healthy eating is pleasurable eating; it is eating without fear or a connection to one’s emotional well-being. 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.”

Parents need not only to “talk” these ideas, but to “walk” them, living and modeling them, speaking and tweaking them, so their children can learn to internalize these notions and eventually regulate their own eating.  Parents need to feed their children, to shop, cook, prepare and serve meals. In addition, they need to sit down with their family to eat meals together as frequently as possible.

The pernicious influences of society, peers and the media in a weight-obsessed world can be off-set by positive parental and family-based influences. Parents who are knowledgeable and unafraid to parent their child proactively have it in their power to virtually immunize their child against eating, attitudes and body image disturbances.  For the child with a genetic predisposition to develop an eating disorder, parents may find themselves unable to prevent the onset of an eating disorder,  but they certainly will be in a better position to nip the disorder in the bud early on, at a time when it is most easily and sustainably curable.


Beating the myths and misconceptions

  • Parents need to understand that fat-free eating is not healthy eating, that skipping meals is not a short-cut to becoming trim, but a way of corrupting one’s metabolic functioning, creating overweight in later life.
  • 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 apply to children; in fact they may be harmful. Children need fat in their diet to support a maturing neurological system throughout the childhood, adolescent, and young adult years. A fat free diet for a child can be damaging to his health.
  • Some parents believe that by communicating honestly with their children about “uncomfortable” topics such as weight management and eating, they could create more problems than they solve, or even risk losing 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; 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.
  • Children 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.
  • 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.


Walking the walk

  • Parents need to understand that the body is not an object whose size and shape can, or should, be fully 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, determining its own ideal or “set point” weight, the benchmark of efficient and effective functioning from the inside out. (As an example, a female’s body cannot be fully healthy unless it is menstruating.)
  • Through listening, parents learn to “know” their child and the child’s needs; through skillful active listening, parents can also help the child come to know herself or himself better. Remember that what a child actually communicates may not be indicative of what he or she intends to communicate.
  • Parents must learn to assign significance to every comment a child makes. If the child makes negative comments about his or her shape or size, or asks if she “looks fat,” parents must not dismiss these comments, even if they seem irrational; rather, parents should use them to enhance their connection with the child. The parent might consider asking the youngster what prompted the question, what she assumes would make her look better and why, and how she might envision trying to accomplish her weight- or food- related goals.)
  • Parents need to become acutely aware of their own body image concerns and attitudes about food and eating 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, or critical of others in that regard.

Children need guidance. They need reality and truth, structure and limits…for out of these constructs comes freedom. Children need exposure to rational decision-making, self-respect 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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