Help children develop an intelligent relationship with food

A few weeks ago, when I was leaving my local post office, I came across a young mother and her little girl. The girl, who looked to be about five years old, was complaining about something. The mother said, “If you stop crying, I’ll give you a cupcake when we get home.”

At first glance, the mother’s comment seemed innocuous enough. And perhaps the comment had no connection to the fact that both the mother and the child were overweight. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was that mother teaching her daughter inadvertently?

Was he teaching her that candy is a reward for good behavior? Was he teaching her that sweets are a way to calm difficult emotions? If the child was learning one or both of these messages, he could have a life-long struggle with weight-related problems due to a dysfunctional relationship with food.

Recently, a new client came to my office about his binge eating. He said he knew exactly how he acquired this behavior (and the girth that went with it). “When my brother and I were children, our parents told us that whoever cleaned their plate first could also eat from their brother’s plate.” What message did you get about food? Maybe it was, “Eat all you can, as fast as you can, so you can eat a little more.”

How many children have been persuaded or coerced to eat more than they want, for reasons that have nothing to do with feeling really hungry or full? “You can’t leave the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate.” “You have to eat because somewhere other children are starving.” “Here, eat some cookies and you will feel better.” “If you don’t eat that, Aunt Jane will think you don’t like her cooking.” Messages like these endow food with illogical meanings.

I am a life coach and counselor specialized in solutions-oriented therapies for the management of habits and stress. I help clients deal with many types of habits, both behavioral and emotional, and as you can probably guess, I have a large number of clients who struggle with overeating and obesity on a daily basis.

My work has given me the opportunity to interview hundreds of clients about their eating habits and their thoughts on food. It doesn’t surprise me that many overweight people have a dysfunctional relationship with food, often due to beliefs about food that they developed in childhood.

To have an intelligent relationship with food is to consider food as a source of nutrition and energy. Therefore, hunger or decreased energy or concentration are signs of eating. People who eat in response to such signals are in tune with their body’s nutritional needs. They select their foods and size their portions accordingly and without much conscious effort. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they feel full. They automatically balance calorie intake and energy production to maintain a healthy weight. The people who are successful at this are clearly a minority in America.

People who have a dysfunctional relationship with food do not eat according to their body’s needs or in response to body signals. Instead, they turn to food to calm unsettling emotions, especially foods high in fat, sugar, and starch. They eat to console themselves; not for its nutritional value. They consider food as a reward for an achievement or for overcoming a difficulty. Having lost contact with the physical feelings that communicate hunger, they eat according to external cues: the time of day, seeing other people eat, the smell of food, a food advertisement, or a magazine cover depicting a delicious dessert.

Because they are no longer in contact with the bodily sensations that indicate fullness, they do not have an intuitive indicator of the proper serving size. They don’t know when to stop eating, so they overeat and consume excess calories that are stored as fat.

Such eating habits lead to obesity. These habits are resistant to change because they are associated with comfort, convenience, and stress relief. They replace the hard work of self-awareness and self-discipline, coping with difficult emotions, and developing effective coping skills – things many people go to therapy to learn.

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to obesity. One factor is the abundance of cheap processed foods high in sugars, starches, and fillers, with low nutritional value. A sedentary lifestyle, genetic problems, certain medications, some illnesses, and poor sleep habits complete the list.

However, since childhood obesity is more prevalent than at any other time in history, parents might consider the messages they give their children about food. Here are three things you would do well to teach, by word, deed, and example:

• Food is for nutrition and energy. Some foods are more nutritious than others.

Parents who teach this will ensure that they provide an ample supply of nutritious foods for snacks and meals, exposing their children’s palates to the flavors of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein when their children are young. Sugary and starchy foods should be a rare treat for special occasions; it is not a daily staple.

• Eat when you are hungry. Stop eating when you feel full.

Parents who teach this will give their children child-sized portions and avoid fights over food. If Suzy doesn’t eat, she can get up from the table. If he’s hungry later, offer him a nutritious snack.

• If you’re feeling stressed, let’s talk about it, consider some options, and find a viable solution.

It takes more time and effort to talk about things with an unhappy child than to appease him with a treat or a toy. However, age-appropriate problem solving is a skill worth teaching.

Finally, if you have a tendency to overeat, because you eat according to external cues from your immediate environment, or to calm difficult emotions, or to reward yourself, or because you do not know when to stop eating, perhaps it is time to do so. examine your own beliefs about food and their meanings. You may want to rethink and replace any unintended messages you received about food when you were young. You can then cultivate a smart relationship with food.

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