Appeared in October 2003 Issue of Island Parent Magazine
You’ve prepared a wonderful dinner for your family. Chicken Marsala , fresh spinach salad, and a creamy risotto. Just as you’re about to tuck in, the kids start to complain. They pick at the rice, stab at the chicken, and whine about the spinach. The battle over food has begun.
You want them to eat healthy, nutritious meals, and they want hot dogs and ice cream.
Over the years, our perceptions about parenting and food have changed. We’ve been implored to make sure our children eat enough fruits and veggies, avoid processed foods, and watch their fat intake. The results have left everyone, especially concerned parents, scratching their heads. Because if this approach works, then why isn’t it working?
A third of Canada ‘s adults are considered obese, as are a quarter of our children. Thirty-three percent of women report the onset of an eating disorder at the ages of eleven-fifteen. Fifty percent of nine-year-old girls and eighty percent of ten-year-old girls have dieted. Fifteen percent of college aged women relate to the term disordered eating, and thirty percent of the nation admits to binge eating. Yet, we’re also a nation of calorie counters, dieters, and health conscious parents.
The dichotomy lies in the Diet Mentality, and the answer lies in Natural Eating.
The Diet Mentality is a way of thinking that has been ingrained in us by messages we receive from our family and friends, from advertisements, and media messages. These views about how we should look, feel and behave have become a part of our way of life. According to the diet me ntality, there are good and bad foods and you are good or bad depending on what you eat, and how much. Eating is restricted to certain times of the day, (breakfast, lunch, dinner), which forces us to tune out to our body’s natural hunger and fullness signals.
Natural Eating, the opposite of the diet mentality, isn’t defined by rules. It’s about listening to your body, and feeding it on demand. Everything is legal. Pizza for breakfast, pancakes for dinner. As long as you’re eating when you’re physically hungry and stopping at fullness, you’re eating naturally. But rather than being the precursor for wild abandon and unchecked indulgence, the fact that we are allowing ourselves what we really want, actually means we eat less and are more satisfied. Therefore, we focus less on food.
A basic analogy is one every parent can understand: Potty training. Why is it that after toddlers are potty trained, we step back and never question their inalienable right to use the bathroom, when and where they need it? After a child learns to use the bathroom successfully on their own, we trust their judgment that they will be able to regulate themselves, and know when to use the bathroom.
Eating can and should be, the same way. It’s a natural function, and at one point, we were all able to regulate our hunger. If we were lucky as infants and toddlers, our cries for hunger were answered, regardless of whether it was a set mealtime . We ate when we were hungry, and stopped when we reached fullness. It is very, very rare for an infant or toddler to be obese, unless, a caretaker intercedes in some way, or there is an existent medical condition. Unless food becomes an emotional issue, there is no reason for children to overeat on a daily basis.
A recent study conducted by Donna Sprujitz Metz at USC, showed that the more a parent pressured a child to eat, the less the child ate. The flip side is also true: The more parents pressure children not to eat the more the child internalizes the message, “I’m not okay the way I am,” and seeks comfort in food – thus eating more rather than less. Alternately, if a parent motivates a child to eat something they don’t want with promises of a treat after, they unwittingly give the child two very conflicted messages. First, tune out to your internal signals of fullness. Secondly, someone else knows more about your needs than you do. Parents must set some boundaries. But, making a child eat something they don’t want, and then rewarding their behaviour with food, sends a very dangerous message that distances our children from the natural signals that their bodies give off about fullness and hunger levels.
Here are some common questions parents have on the topic:
If I follow the Natural Eating approach won’t my child binge on junk food and become overweight? Aren’t I encouraging obesity?
In the beginning of the process, your child may consume a diet that is filled with processed, fatty foods. And this is when it’s most important to step back, and reserve judgment. Once your child trusts that they will not be restricted or criticized, those previously taboo foods lose all power and allure. Part of growing up is becoming independent. Eventually, your children will have to learn to make food choices on their own. If they’re school aged, they already do so on a daily basis: at school, with friends, and while you’re apart. Giving them the tools and permission to stay in touch with their inner hunger and fullness signals is a gift.
Okay, this sounds like something my family would like to try, how?
Letting go of control of your child’s diet is difficult in our culture. Giving them autonomy over their food intake will take ti me and practice. Start with a discussion. Let your children know you’re trying something new, you’re letting them make their own decisions around food, and you trust them. Your child won’t starve, won’t become undernourished, or overweight if you let them have what they want without guilt. Guilt is a major factor in disordered eating.
The body knows what it needs. Eventually, the body will demand veggies, fruit, and whole grains. Continue to provide these options, model natural eating for your children and they, too will associate food with nourishment.
What if I let my child eat whenever he/she wants and the overeating or constant eating of junk food continues? How long, is too long?
How long depends on each child. Generally, a parent could expect that the more the child perceived certain foods as being off limits, the more time he or she will need to adjust to their newfound freedom, and experiment with hunger, satiety, and even overeating. 3-6 months would be average. After that, it’s probably time to check in as a family.
What do I do if my child is reaching for food when they aren’t hungry?
Occasionally, even natural eaters will use food for emotional comfort. This is normal. If you see your child reaching for cookies after being teased during school, and you know she’s just eaten, you can bet she is eating to soothe her pain. Let her have her cookies, and talk to her after the binge. By doing this, you’ve acknowledged both emotional pain and her autonomy. Most importantly, you’ve provided her with alternate coping skills. Next time, she’ll be able to deal with the problem directly.
On the other hand, if your child is consistently reaching for food for comfort, this is an indication that they have adopted food as a coping mechanism to avoid other, more painful issues. If your child is frequently eating/restricting for emotional reasons, it’s important to get help.
By following natural eating as a family, you’re giving your children independence, and encouraging them to trust themselves and their bodies. Gone are the heated arguments and the power struggles over food. Your children are less likely to develop eating disorders, to diet, and are more likely to have higher self-esteem and self-awareness.
By, Brooke Finnigan