I just listened to an alarming interview on the CBC with paediatrician and Eating Disorder specialist Dr. Samantha Martin. In the interview she shares that that rates of Eating Disorder/ Disordered Eating in kids are on the rise – at a concerning rate. Especially in last several months (Covid). There is speculation about why this might be (loss of routine and structure, loss of many sources of connection and community support), but the bottom line is this…
While knowing why it’s happening will be pivotal to helping us as a collective shift the tides and affect change at a systemic level, as a mom I just want to know what I can do to help my kids get through this healthy, happy and feeling good in the (awesome) skin they’re in. Are you with me?!
In this blog I’m sharing 10 tips HAES® informed Dietitian Jenn Messina and I came up with to help you be a Body Positive Parent. It’s not exhaustive and it’s not the whole picture (we’ve got a lot of anti-diet ammo in our toolkits, but we don’t have all the answers and frankly there’s only so much we can share in a blog!), but we think it’ll help. And at the very least, it’s not going to hurt to explore some of these ideas and implement some of these strategies!
Remember it’s not all or none – even if you took one of these tips and applied the strategies we talk about – we think your kids (and you) will benefit!
The biggest tip of all.
The next 10 tips are more nuanced and less “obvious” and hopefully really practical. But this blog wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t give you this most important tip: you first.
We are our kids first (and most important) teachers – especially when it comes to the development of beliefs and values. So the beliefs and values we have around food/ movement and our bodies are no different.
If we want to help our children develop a healthy relationship with food/ movement/body one of the most important steps we can take is to role model the relationship we want for them. This simple frame helps me a lot. When I notice I’m engaging in Diet Mentality or an unhealthy relationship with my body – I simply ask myself, “is this what I’d want for my kids?” If the answer is no, then I know this is something I need to explore. How can I support and nurture the relationship I want (for them, and me)?
A word (or 300) on dieting.
If you’re a dieter, I invite you to ditch the diet. In terms of Eating Disorder prevention we know this: one of the biggest steps we can take is to support our kids is prevent the first diet.
Why? Dieters are 8x more likely to develop an Eating Disorder. And that stat doesn’t include those with Disordered Eating (an unhealthy relationship with food that doesn’t meet diagnostic criteria for an Eating Disorder but is impacting quality of life and mental/ physical health).
And I’m not just talking about the obvious forms of dieting like counting calories, limiting/ restricting food groups (for non-medical reasons) or following arbitrary food rules. I’m talking about all dieting: counting macros (unless your diabetic and are monitoring carbs), “eating clean,” Paleo, Whole 30, Noom or any of the other “en vogue” eating styles that are rigid and rule based. These are often marketed as a “healthy lifestyle,” but they have all the same outcomes of your garden variety diet. Read: the majority of dieters will regain the weight they lost and then some within 3-5 years. And that yoyo effect is not only frustrating – it’s what’s to blame for a lot of the health complications so often blamed on “obesity.” (if you want to dig into this topic more you can check out this blog and this blog).
If you need help:
If you’re struggling with your own relationship with body/ food/ movement, please don’t feel badly. Let’s not add self-criticism/guilt/shame to the mix here. That’s not helpful. If you’re struggling, welcome. You are not alone! Rates of Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating are also high (and rising) in adults – and that’s only the ED that is reported/ diagnosed. In my work, every day I see the degree of Disordered Eating that has become truly normalized in our culture (thanks Diet Culture). If you’re struggling – you don’t have to struggle alone. There is help. Please feel free to reach out to me. I can help direct you to the appropriate resources in your community.
The 10 Tips:
Tip 1: Drop the body talk.
Have you ever noticed just how many comments we (as a collective society) make about our bodies?! On TV, around the water cooler (ok that’s not a thing anymore, but let’s say on Zoom while you wait for a meeting to start), casually, in memes. It’s legit everywhere. And it’s really not helpful! When we make derogatory comments (or even “positive” ones) about our bodies or other bodies we’re reinforcing the cultural aesthetic norms and the importance/ value of meeting these norms. It also reinforces that the body is an ornament, not an instrument (more on that in the next tip).
Action step: Don’t comment on your body. Or your partner’s, your kid’s, a neighbours or a strangers. Period. Don’t comment if they’ve gained/ lost weight, don’t comment about how they’re “looking good.” Or if they’re looking “fit” or “healthy.” I know, it’s hard. We want to – we yearn to make comments (good ones). But it isn’t going to get us where we want to go (to a place where we appreciate how awesome our bodies are for all they can do and as a vessel for who we are and what we bring to this world! For what to do instead check out Tip 2!
Tip 2: Emphasize function over fashion.
Body and aesthetic norms change with the wind – just like fashion. The aspirational body of one generation will be the dread of the next and visa versa. Body’s also change over time – that’s normal and natural. So what happens when your body changes from the ideal? Or if your body never (ever) fits that ideal? For most people this results in a push to change that and do your best to conform. And here’s what we know – it doesn’t work – not long term. And the costs are great (and too long to get into in this short blog). Instead, let’s talk about what we can do instead.
Action step: Focus on what your body can DO and the amazing person your child is. Focus on attributes and their unique and awesome capabilities – whatever they might be! This is not able-ism. We need to celebrate all bodies (more on that in Tip 3). But instead about taking the focus OFF the aesthetic and onto the function/ purpose. Consider practicing body gratitude to counter some of the diet-culture messages they will receive “out there” (even if you do your best they will). Think of this like a defensive driving strategy – instead this is a “defensive” body loving technique! Get into a habit of reflecting as a family about what we appreciate about our bodies and encourage a family culture where you embrace it all!
Tip 3: Celebrate all bodies!
Help your kids see that body diversity is a beautiful thing! One of my favourite metaphors to help hit this message home uses dogs. What?! I know, walk with me. Dog’s come in a variety of breeds. And each of those breeds vary in body size, muscularity, leanness, girth, etc. Humans are no different! We all have a natural, genetically defined body type – and while it might not “match” the current aesthetic ideal – it’s the body we’ve got! So it’s important to honour and respect it with health practices that serve it. It’s also important to acknowledge that body’s change over time – a puppy’s body is different than an adults – this is normal and natural.
Action Step: Speak to the beauty of body diversity. Help your kids see that bodies vary and that’s a wonderful thing. Much like we shouldn’t judge someone for their height or foot size, we must not judge someone for their degree of fatness. Check your assumptions and remember that all bodies deserve respect and kindness.
Tip 4: Don’t demonize “junk” food.
We live in a diet culture that typically labels foods as “good” or “bad.” And while of course there are foods that provide more nutritional value than others, this type of labeling doesn’t serve our health or our relationship with food! In an effort to be more healthy most people aim to eat more of the “good” foods and restrict the “bad” or “junk” foods. But over time it’s not realistic to always adhere to the restriction. And if you choose to eat the “bad” foods, this often results in feelings of guilt or shame (which is destructive to our mental health). This food morality, guilt and shame can also lead to hiding food or sneaking food which is disordered behaviour (and all too common).
Action step: Make all foods welcome in your home and at your tables – without judgement. I know. It’s counter-intuitive. I hear you momma, I had the same concern: won’t they just eat candy and chips and never eat a vegetable again?! Surprisingly no (but there’s also more to this approach than just unconditional permission, but that’s where it begins). But the most important part of this tip is that “without judgement” element. Let your kids have candy, chips, and other “treat” foods but don’t slap the label “junk” on them. Be neutral about it. “Play foods” are part of a healthy relationship with foods. And when you ditch the diet mentality around them, they legit become no big deal. Your kids will shock you!
Tip 5: Help your kids connect with their hunger and fullness.
You (and your kids) were born with a wonderful internal capacity to know when they need food, and when they’re done. When your body is hungry it will give you cues to eat (growling belly, drop in energy, difficulty concentrating, feeling lethargic, focusing on food, just to name a few). When you are full it will also give you cues (feeling of satisfaction, energy levels, feeling of belly fullness, etc.). As parents we want to ensure they’re “getting enough/ not too much,” but our beliefs about what that is might be off. There is lots we can’t see as parents that influences their metabolic needs (whether they’re about to have a growth spurt for example). So the best way for us to support our kids to eat the best amount for them is to help them tune into their internal gauges: hunger and fullness.
Action step: help your children tune into hunger and fullness. Talk about what hunger and fullness feels like in their body. Where do they feel it? How hungry/ full are they – and how do they use that information to help them determine how much they want to eat. Let go of your concerns about them not eating enough/ too much. And encourage them to have body autonomy (they’re the boss of their body).
Tip 6: Encourage them to move with joy!
Our bodies were designed to move! We were designed to walk, run, move and play! But in our modern day culture there is less and less innate/ natural movement. Which means there’s been the introduction of wonderful things like “fitness” to help us achieve the ideal movement for good health. But “fitness’ has gotten really tied up in Diet Culture. Exercise has become an endeavour of “calories out” or an effort to change the body and in the process totally killed the joy. Which means for many people movement has become a chore or something they think they “should” do (but dread doing). But shitty should’s and dread rarely help us feel fabulous (or do anything with consistency – which from a health perspective is the name of the game). So we need to reclaim our JOY for movement.
Action step: Help movement be a joyful experience – for yourself and your kids! Encourage them to move in ways they truly enjoy and find ways to do the same. Foster a curious growth mindset around movement – especially if your kids struggle. This is the belief that we can all improve with practice and patience. And the notion that it’s ok if we’re not good at something…yet. As best you can encourage them to be active in ways that are fun (for them). This might not always be what is fun for you (I get it, this one is hard for me too). Real life means sometimes we have to do things that aren’t ideal – but find ways to make the experience as pleasurable as possible.
Tip 7: Embrace the division of responsibility.
Dietitian Ellyn Satter is one of the leading experts on feeding children. Her work is truly groundbreaking when it comes to encouraging children to be healthy eaters. One of the foundational pricinples of her work is something called Division of Responsibility. The basic concept is this: as a parent it’s your job to provide a variety of food at reliable intervals, it’s the child’s job to determine if, what and how much they eat. Here’s the tricky one for most of us as parents (me included). We need to give them space to do this without comment. Why is this important? Because it encourages children to tune into their own unique body signals and help them develop body autonomy.
Action step: YES you can still ensure that within the options you are providing a variety of healthy foods are made available. But also include treat or play foods in the mix (remember, no foods are demonized or off limits)! This will help your child develop moderation and become attuned to their internal body signals.
Tip 8: Get your kids involved!
When it comes to health practices in your family (food, movement, sleep, mental/ spiritual practices) include your kids in the conversation. Help them reflect and consider what it means to be healthy to them – and to you as a family! Then get them involved in the decisions around how you bring that vision of health to life! This will help with adherence (ownership helps them feel like it’s their decision, not something you’ve mandated) and decrease the “fight” factor (or at least it does in our house)!
Action step: Have a family meeting and explore your family values around movement, nutrition and health. Ask them what matters to them. Then involve them in bringing it to life. Get them involved in meal planning and food preparation (in age appropriate ways). Engage them in decisions around family activities. Ask them how they’d like to move as a family – a walk, a hike, a bike ride? Where to?! As they get to be part of the conversation and decision making this encourages their autonomy and helps them feel empowered! It will also massively increase the joy factor because they’ll be more likely to choose activities they like!
Tip 9: Be cautious around using food to bribe/ reward/ soothe
It’s ok to celebrate with food – food is part of the fabric of our culture. But when we bribe/ reward behaviour or soothe emotions with food we are reinforcing the idea that food is something we get when we do hard things/ get through things or how we cope. This ties food to our emotional state, which isn’t ideal. This is not to demonize emotional eating. Eating is a tool that we all use from time to time to help us cope with feelings. And that’s genuinely ok. Sometimes it’s actually the best tool in our tool kit. The goal is to make sure it’s not the only tool in our toolkit and to remember it’s not the end of the world if we use it (let’s not layer guilt on top of an already tough situation)!
Be especially mindful about rewarding activity with food. We don’t want to tie these two behaviours together either. Food is food, movement is movement. Other than the fact that we need energy to be active the two aren’t tied. We don’t earn food – we deserve to eat not matter what! And we also don’t need to do activity to “burn off” food. Movement isn’t a compensatory activity – it’s joy (back to tip 6).
Action step: Be mindful of how you use food to bribe/ reward/ help soothe. Add tools to your toolkit so that food isn’t always the default. Don’t feel bad when/if you notice you use food a lot – especially with young kids (hello, I potty trained almost exclusively due to candy). Start with swapping out ONE bribe (say make a sticker chart and help them “earn” something else they covet). Or explore ONE new strategy to help them soothe (perhaps try on box breathing). Whatever you do, remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. Change takes time.
Tip 10: Help them be savvy consumers of marketing and media.
This is a biggie. We live in a digital age where we WILL see images whether we like it or not. Educate your kids about how images are altered – filters, photoshop etc. Also help them realize that even if they’re aware it is altered – it still makes an impact. There’s research to show that while media training helps, it doesn’t erase the impact of altered images on our self-esteem.
Action step: With young children do your best to curate their environment for them. Obviously consider access to things like TV, but also to book. Can you actively explore books/ games/ toys that show body diversity? As they get older, help your child curate their own environment. Consider TV, social media, web access – help them choose what and whom they follow and help them understand what is and is not ok. And if you hear some diet mentality talk or see something that alerts you – use it as a teaching moment. Have a conversation with them about why this concerns you. Help them see it too! Teaching them to be savvy to the impact of their digital world and setting healthy boundaries for themselves is also a wonderful skill to have – for life!
The Bottom Line:
If you’ve finished reading this and are thinking, OMG I’m doing it all wrong. Don’t worry. Parenting is a work in progress (I’m still learning too, and always will be!). When it comes to this work this quote by Maya Angelou speaks volumes. “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Can I get an amen?!
We’re all just doing the best with the tool kit we’ve got. This blog is about adding more tools to your toolkit. Remember being a jerk to yourself generally doesn’t help you affect change. It generally decreases your self-confidence and self-efficacy (belief in your capability to be successful). Hand on heart momma, you’re not alone! Be kind to yourself and ask for help when you need it!
Raising kids is tough. Raising kids who are healthy, happy and body empowered in a culture that is food/ diet/ fitness obsessed is SUPER hard. But we’re here to help. Join Jenn and I for our upcoming Body Positive Parenting Course. This 6-session course will help you take a deeper dive into how to genuinely help your school-aged kids to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food, movement and their body as they navigate these tricky waters. And give YOU tools to help them (and yourself!).