Are we what we eat?
The news this week has been full of government schemes to tackle the so-called obesity crisis in our country. Most of what I have read has just made me downright furious and pained to see that as ever we aren’t focusing on the roots of any issue but implementing practices which have the possibility for causing real harm.
Obesity is not something that happens in a vacuum and its not something that is helped by shaming people with diet culture or how they can make food easily and cheaply.
There are a lot of moving parts to this issue, and a lot to think about, but I want to concentrate on children and how we can support them in building a positive relationship with food – with none of the food and fat shaming and financial penalties which doesn’t help anyone.
Fatness does not equal health
So lets start at the top. If you are fat that does not mean that you are not healthy or not fit. You can be thin and unfit and unhealthy. You can be fat, unfit, but healthy. You can be fat and healthy and fit. They are not intrinsically linked.
You do not owe anyone information about your health, and no one owes it to you. No one has a right to judge your worth based on your health, your fitness or your size.
At a societal level we are very fatphobic – the way that we talk about food, clothing, people and the way we design every day objects are all generally very opposed to fat bodies. It is natural that we want to protect our children from that stigma, but as adults we can examine our own ideas and internal fatphobia and change the way that we interact with the world.
What does that have to do with our children? From an early age the media they see and hear will be fatphobic. Female presenting children in particular will be bombarded with messages around how they should look, what they should eat and the constant noise of diet culture. In our conversations with our children, and with ourselves where they can hear we can change our words. Rather than talking about hating our fat bodies, we can talk about how wonderful it is that our bodies allow us to do things. We can talk about things in a positive light and help our children with their body image and long term self esteem.
Children and food battles
Food is one of those battle grounds that pretty much all parents experience. Whether your child has refused to eat something you’ve made, or they’ve refused something they used to eat loads of, or they will only eat chicken nuggets and chips or they want to eat something every 25 seconds there are a whole range of battles to ‘enjoy’ when it comes to food.
Children can go through a lot of phases when it comes to eating. When they are first experimenting with food it has little to do with nutrition – babies starting on solid food are just continuing their exploration of everything with their mouths. Often they are surprised that it has taste and surprised if something goes in! This exploration is fun and new and exciting so they will often try a range of foods if left to their own devices.
As they grow they then tend to hit what is often called a ‘fussy’ phase. Children have many more taste buds than adults so eating can be an overwhelming sensory experience, especially with strong flavours. Children of walking age also have an inbuilt evolutionary protection to not eat things that look ‘different’ (so that they don’t eat anything poisonous whilst toddling around!) so they frequently stop eating things that they have previously enjoyed. This often shows up as a tendency to want ‘beige food’ – chips, plain pasta, chicken nuggets and the like!
Add in any allergies, illnesses, sensory issues or disabilities and suddenly you can quickly be coping with a child that has a very limited diet – which can become a concern.
What do you want your child’s relationship with food to look like?
Stop for a minute and write down what you want your child’s relationship to food to look like. When they are adults how do you want them to think about eating?
When we ask parents to do this during eating workshops there are usually common threads – we want a positive relationship, an understanding of nutrition, comfortable with eating in a variety of settings, not feeling judgement around food, not using food as a way to cope with stress or mental health issues.
But how do you get there? Our instincts as parents are to impose a lot of limits on eating and food can quickly escalate into a full on battle ground – and those restrictions can introduce the very ideas about food that we want to avoid.
What does this have to do with obesity anyway?
So – what is this all related to? There are studies which show that adult obesity begins with childhood eating patterns. These are set so early that they are can feel insurmountable as adults.
There is a link between formula feeding and long term weight gain – the details are not well known right now but the speculation is that it is less to do with the milk and more to do with the way that the baby is fed. When a baby is fed at the breast they control their own milk intake according to their own feelings right from the start. When a child is bottle fed this can fall by the wayside a little – babies are encouraged to finish the whole bottle (formula is expensive and its hard to see it ‘go to waste’), constant flow can make it hard for babies to control their intake as they would at the breast and at just a milk level it doesn’t contain the same hormones as breastmilk, some of which are related to the full feeling.
If you were raised anything like me then from our earliest solid foods this trend continues – encouraging eating of the whole plate, using tricks to get babies to eat more (here comes the aeroplane!) and not necessarily following the cues a baby shows. It can very quickly be the case that the baby doesn’t trust or use their own body’s signals that they are full – and they overeat.
Now, obviously, this isn’t true for everyone and it is possible to feed babies in all ways in responsive and less responsive manners. No single incident is going to mess up your child’s relationship with food long term – but it is worth, like with examining your biases around fatness, examining the language and way we offer food in our lives.
What can I do to help my child with food?
There are many things you can do with your child to help their relationship with food grow into what you wish in the long term – and alongside it their body image and self esteem. Here are our top tips.
Children begin to accept food when they are familiar with it. Allowing children to experience food in it’s ‘standard’ form is important rather than hiding it. Whilst hiding ingredients (I love a good grated veg spaghetti sauce!) is useful for getting in nutrition, it doesn’t help children understand what they are eating and tasting and why it might be good for them. Children don’t have to eat food to gain familiarity either – just seeing it and talking about it will help. Take small steps.
Involvement with food preparation from an early age can help here as well. Handling food, seeing how it changes when cooked and more are all valuable experiences.
Let them serve their own portions
Children in general have an intuitive sense of when they are hungry and full and what they want to eat. Listening to those cues and respecting them will give them long term tools as adults.
If you can allow children to serve themselves buffet style that’s great – most kids love it and they can begin to explore how much makes them full and self regulate. If you can’t easily do this (I can’t usually!) then small portions with more available if they want it is great.
Toddlers in particular can get hungry at odd times which don’t necessarily correspond to your mealtimes! Find a way that you are comfortable with to be flexible around this – whether that’s a range of freely available snacks, flexible mealtimes, snack times or anything else.
Division of responsibility
It is your responsibility as a parent to provide food for your child which has variety and a range of nutritional value. It is your responsibility to provide boundaries and balance when needed. You are responsible for their safety in the now and helping them reach long term success.
It is your child’s responsibility to decide whether to eat and how much. If you provide food and your child chooses not to eat that – respect that. If you are dealing with a child who eats very little and there are concerns then this will need to be adapted to ensure that there are safe foods available but in the main it is not our responsibility to make a child eat.
Keep eating neutral
The language and actions we use around food have the potential for long term impact. We have all grown up having eating be very far from neutral so this can be very hard to do!
If you can, just eat your food without comment. Stay relaxed and let your child eat and explore. Conflict will just add stress to everyone. Both negative punishment and praise around food have pitfalls – shaming someone into eating can be as bad as telling someone that you love the food so they should to!
Keep your focus on modelling the manners and behaviour you want your child to see and keep emotion and persuasion out of eating.
At different points in their lives all children will restrict the foods that they will reliably eat to differing amounts. This can be concerning for many parents and in extreme cases may need support from external sources.
Eating together models that food is safe. Seeing you eat an apple happily is much more likely to entice your toddler to try it too!
If you do have a child who restricts, make sure that there is always something available that they will eat. That can mean making slight variations on meals (like pasta with sauce they add themselves too allow those who want it plain to have it that way) or serving things like bread, yoghurt or fruit with meals. This will help your child feel that food isn’t something scary – there will always be something that they can eat.
This is a difficult topic for many people, myself included. Unlearning some of my harmful eating practices is an ongoing process for me and I suspect it always will be. But as much as possible, I want to offer my children a different starting point, one which equips them with a different set of tools and which can help them to a different relationship with their food. And at no point will I be bothered about their size 😉