Help 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 little girl. The girl, who looked to be about five years old, was complaining about something. The mother told her, “If you stop crying, I’ll give you a cupcake when we get home.”

At first glance, the mother’s comment seemed harmless 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 inadvertently teaching her daughter?

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

A new client recently came to my counseling practice regarding her compulsion to overeat. She said that she knew exactly how she acquired this behavior (and the girth that went with it). “When my brother and I were kids, our parents told us that whoever cleaned her plate first could also eat from her brother’s plate.” What message did she receive about food? Maybe it was: “Eat as much as you can, as fast as you can, so you can eat some more.”

How many children have been persuaded or forced to eat more than they want, for reasons that have nothing to do with actually feeling hungry or full? “You can’t get up from 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’ll feel better. “If you don’t eat that, Aunt Jane will think you don’t like what she cooks.” Posts like these endow food with illogical meanings.

I am a life coach and counselor specialized in therapies aimed at solving habits and stress management. I help clients who 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 job 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 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 a drop in energy or concentration are signals to eat. People who eat in response to such cues are attuned to 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 output 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 bodily signals. Instead, they turn to food to calm troublesome emotions, especially foods high in fat, 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. Having lost touch with the physical feelings that communicate hunger, they eat according to external cues: the time of day, seeing other people eating, the smell of food, a food ad, or a magazine cover showing a delicious dessert.

Because they are no longer in touch with the bodily sensations that indicate satiety, 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, confronting difficult emotions, and developing effective coping skills, the things many people learn in therapy.

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to obesity. One factor is the abundance of cheap processed foods that are 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, with childhood obesity more prevalent than at any time in history, parents may want to 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 she’s hungry later, offer her a nutritious snack.

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

It takes more time and effort to talk things over with an unhappy child than it does to soothe him with a treat 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 it may be time to examine your own beliefs about food and what it means. He may want to rethink and replace the unwanted messages he received about food when he was young. Then you could cultivate a smart relationship with food.

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