Note from Rebecca: Parents and caregivers have so much pressure these days. Trying to make ends meet, juggling busy schedules while giving the best care to their kids is simply A. LOT. Read the following post by Megan Holt, DrPH, MPH, RD and listen to what nuggets tug on your heart with grace and compassion. Caution against reading this and letting the “I am a good/bad parent” critic run rampant and instead think about what is working and what areas re: this subject may be good to focus on making a change. One at a time. And commit to not doing any of this perfect but messing it up a lot as you seek to care for you and your family well – one bite, one step, one thought, one prayer at a time.
How do family and friends influence your relationship with food, exercise and body image?
Perhaps surprisingly, peer influence on eating behaviors is much less pronounced than that of parents.
Kids raised in an obesogenic home environment (easy and regular access to foods consistent with a poor quality of diet, sedentary living quarters and/or limited access to safe outdoor play areas) are more likely to adopt these poor eating habits, but modeling intake of so-called ‘healthy’ foods does not necessarily model a healthy relationship with food.
A few examples of eating behaviors and other measures that are heavily influenced by habits of parents:
- Fruit and veggie consumption of kids increase proportionately with parent’s intake
- Tendency to lean on fast food/drive thru’s versus cooking at home increases in later adolescent years (and beyond) if parents model this behavior
On the flip side….Parents and caregivers who diet chronically or focus on weight or shape or fatness (even if only theirs) are more likely to experience the following with their children:
- poor self-esteem
- disordered eating patterns
- body image issues and body dysmorphia
- weight cycling (versus achieving and maintaining a stable weight)
- orthorexia, or obsession with healthy/perfect/clean eating
What’s a parent to do?!
Given that obesity prevention is indeed a primary target of public health interventions, how is it possible that such an environment overly focused on weight and size may be less than helpful at times?
Authors Brooke Kantor and Hannah Borowsky hit the nail on the head in this excerpt from “The Obesity-Eating Disorder Paradox” from Harvard Political Review:“Failing to deal with the reality of America’s obesity problem for fear of perpetuating an unhealthy obsession with body image would be a disservice to the public and perilous for the health of the nation. However, it is equally detrimental to attempt to tackle obesity by promoting restrictive diets and extreme exercise regiments. Adopting approaches that focus on positive attitude and lifestyle changes not only protects against eating disorders and issues of body image, but also is actually more successful in preventing obesity. Therefore, America need not choose one fight over the other. The solutions to both issues are actually one in the same.”
Within the disordered eating treatment bubble, we often hear parents eating patterns described as follows by the person struggling (particularly early on in treatment):
- “My parents are health nuts. I NEVER see them eat dessert.”
- “We never had ‘bad’ food in the house growing up”
- “Mon/Dad never missed a day of exercise”
- “Mom/Dad was always on a different diet, and Dad/Mom would eat just about anything.”
- “Mom/Dad never sat down for a meal…s/he would skip breakfast and just pick at food, but s/he did drink a lot of coffee.”
A few words of wisdom when it comes to promoting a healthy relationship with food with any of the young people you care for:
- Avoid characterizing food in moral or black/white terms (‘good’/’bad’)
- Sit down whenever possible to meals, and enjoy meals with minimal distractions (emails, TV, etc.)
- Model breakfast eating and honor hunger and fullness (versus leaning on caffeine to ‘pull through’ and dull the appetite….kids pick up on this.)
- Avoid introducing movies such as “Supersize Me” or “Food Inc.” (even with the best of intentions) too early on, as teenagers are too young to manage these concepts without thinking in extremes
- Promoting exercise for the sake of weight loss/burning calories, especially for kids or parents with orthorexic tendencies can be detrimental
- Do not use food as reward or punishment. Ex: Kid gets in trouble at school and parents withhold dessert that night as part of disciplinary effort.
Call to action:
Journal/write about the following:
Design an eating style for yourself with the assumption that weight will not be influenced in either direction.
What would it look like?
Consider the following: quality of life, energizing nature of foods chosen, food availability, flexibility and enjoyment/palatability of food.
How would you go about meeting your body’s needs? How might this be different if you were also considering potential weight shifts?
Need help or are stuck with these calls to action? Please let me know how I can be a resource to you and your family. It gives me great joy to help people make sustaining lifestyle changes while pushing back on the toxic culture around food, exercise and body image.
In good health,
Megan, DrPH, MPH, RD + Potentia’s Coordinator of Nutrition and Wellness firstname.lastname@example.org