Parents! Let’s talk about what happens when you comment on food intake, body weight, and body image in front of your children.

By Emilie Procario, Dietetic Intern and Erica Leon, MS, RDN

It is hard to have any conversations these days that doesn’t include some mention of a person’s body weight, body size, or state of health; these conversations are prevalent in our diet-focused world. However, discussing body weight is sensitive, particularly for children and teens.

As adults, we care about the kids in our lives, but it is always hard to know the best way to approach discussions around body weight or health in young people without causing unintentional harm.

Even if we don’t talk about our kids’ bodies directly, we almost always comment on our bodies without realizing it.

help your child develop a healthy relationship with food

To help your child grow up to have a healthy relationship with food and their body, here are 10 tips to follow:

  1. Quit the negative body talk! We are all guilty of this at one point or another! However, when you make comments like “Ew, I look fat” or “Gross – I’m so flabby,” this reinforces the idea that someone is only beautiful if they are thin. Children hear these comments and subsequently internalize these thoughts about themselves.
  2. Try and eat the same foods as your children. Kids learn by example, so do your best to model a balanced diet with adequate nourishment and pleasure. For example, you can enjoy a bowl of ice cream on a summer night with your kids or have mac & cheese with them for a Saturday lunch. Children notice if you eat grilled chicken and salad instead of mac & cheese. They notice if you skip the ice cream. And when kids also hear, “Oh, I shouldn’t eat that,” they internalize that message too. Bottom line – do not model dieting behaviors. Show your children that all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle.
  3. Do not limit your child’s food intake. Children are born with the ability to sense their body’s natural signals of hunger and fullness. Children are growing, and it is normal to be hungry; unless you notice that your child is eating for reasons other than hunger (i.e., emotional reasons), this is a sign they are listening to their hunger cues – you should listen too! Because of diet culture, it can be hard always to trust your kids when they tell you they’re hungry.
  4. Do not make food a reward. Examples include: “Once you finish your vegetables, you can have a cookie!” “You can only have dessert if you finish all your homework.” These “food” rewards are prevalent in child-rearing practices, but they instill the belief that “treats” like ice cream and candy are conditional and infrequent. Scarcity makes these foods extra memorable and exciting, which can lead to overeating when they become available. Do your best not to label “fun food,” such as cookies and ice cream, as a “conditional” treat.
  5. Be mindful of the type of exercise you encourage. A child can skip HIIT and spin classes, boot camps, etc., especially if they do not enjoy this activity. Promoting age-appropriate activity is critical, such as playing with friends outside or participating in team sports like basketball or volleyball. Encourage your child to find movement they enjoy – and engage in because it is FUN and makes them feel good, not because it burns calories.
  6. Practice self-compassion. Instead of negative self-talk and being critical of yourself, try to be kind and understanding towards yourself. Remember that it’s okay to make mistakes or have less-than-perfect habits.
  7. Focus on balance. Instead of always trying to be perfect, try to find a healthy balance. This might involve finding ways to incorporate healthy habits into your routine and allowing yourself to indulge in what you enjoy.
  8. Seek support. If you are struggling to find balance or are feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to seek assistance from friends, family, or a therapist. They can provide a listening ear and offer guidance and perspective.
  9. Remember that health is more than just diet and exercise. While taking care of your body, it’s also important to remember that health encompasses several aspects of your life, including your emotional, mental, and social well-being.
  10. Practice gratitude. Focusing on what you are grateful for can help shift your perspective and remind you of the many positive things in your life.

After reading these tips on helping your children develop a healthy relationship with food, can you reflect on your diet and exercise behaviors? How do you model or encourage them for your children? These thoughts and behaviors result from our culture’s normalization of dieting and the desire for thinness. Remember that we all want the best for our kids, so try not to feel ashamed or blame yourself if you have room for improvement.

If you haven’t heard of the term “almond mom” (and you think you have room to improve on your own relationship with food and body), you can read this article, What is an Almond Mom.

You can also read this article on how to prevent eating disorders in teens and adolescents.