Helping Children Develop an Intelligent Relationship With Food

Helping Children Develop an Intelligent Relationship With Food

A few weeks ago, as I was leaving my local post office, I passed a young mother and her young daughter. The girl, who appeared 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.”

On the surface, the mother’s comment seemed harmless enough. And perhaps the comment had no connection to the fact that both the mother and the girl were overweight. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was that mother teaching her daughter without realizing it?

Was I teaching him that sweets are a reward for good behavior? Was I teaching her that sweets are a way to calm difficult emotions? If the girl was learning one or both of these messages, she could be in a life-long struggle with weight-related problems based on a dysfunctional relationship with food.

Recently, a new client came to my counseling practice about her compulsive overeating. She said she knew exactly how she acquired this behavior (and the accompanying girth). “When my brother and I were children, our parents told us that whoever cleaned his plate first could also eat from his brother’s plate.” What message did she receive about the food? Maybe it was: “Eat as much as you can, as fast as you can, so you can eat a little more.”

How many children have been persuaded or forced 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 other children are starving to death elsewhere.” “Have some cookies and you will feel better.” “If you don’t eat that, Aunt Jane will think you don’t like me cooking.” Messages like these endow food with illogical meanings.

I am a life coach and counselor specializing in solutions-oriented therapies for stress management and habits. I help clients who are struggling with many kinds of habits, both behavioral and emotional, and as you may probably suppose, I have a lot of clients who struggle daily with overeating and obesity.

My work has given me the opportunity to interview hundreds of clients about their eating habits and thoughts about food. I am not surprised that many overweight people maintain a dysfunctional relationship with food, often due to the beliefs about food that they developed in childhood.

Having an intelligent relationship with food is to consider food as a source of nutrition and energy. Therefore, hunger or a drop in 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 food and classify their portions accordingly without much conscious effort. They eat when they feel hungry and stop when they feel full. Automatically balance calorie intake and energy production to maintain a healthy weight. People who are successful in this are clearly a minority in the United States.

People who have a dysfunctional relationship with food do not eat according to their bodily needs or in response to bodily cues. Instead, they turn to food to calm disturbing emotions, especially foods high in fats, sugar, and starch. They eat for comfort; not for nutritional value. They view food as a reward for an achievement or for overcoming a difficulty. After they have lost touch 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 the cover of a magazine that represents a delicious dessert.

Because they are no longer in contact with the bodily feelings that indicate satiety, they do not have an intuitive indicator as to the appropriate portion 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, confront difficult emotions, and develop effective coping skills, things that 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 fillings, with low nutritional value. A sedentary lifestyle, genetic problems, certain medications, some diseases, and poor sleep habits complete the list.

However, with childhood obesity more prevalent than at any 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 make sure to provide an ample supply of nutritious snacks and meals, exposing their children’s palates to the taste 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 food battles. If Suzy doesn’t eat, she can leave the table. If she is hungry later, offer her a nutritious snack.

• If you feel stressed, let’s talk, consider some options, and find a workable solution.

It takes more time and effort to talk to an unhappy child than to appease him with a gift or 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 in your immediate environment, or to calm difficult emotions, or to reward yourself, or because you don’t know when to stop eating, then maybe it’s time. de Examine your own beliefs about food and their meanings. You may want to rethink and replace the spam messages you received about food when you were young. Then you could cultivate an intelligent relationship with food.

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