As a registered dietitian, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to raise the next generation of healthy eaters.
With so much information about healthy eating available, it can be overwhelming and difficult for parents. Scary-sounding ingredients on nutrition labels can make us feel like there are dangers everywhere. How can we keep our kids safe and healthy?
But there’s an equally important question: How can we help our kids understand what it means to be healthy and build life-long healthy relationships with food?
Kids are very impressionable. The relationships their parents have with food can have a huge impact on their own relationships with food. Even a well-intentioned attempt to teach kids about healthy eating can go too far when food is labeled as “good” and “bad,” and the “bad” foods are linked with shame and guilt.
Your relationship with food
Start by taking an honest look at your own relationship with food. Do you:
- Spend too much time and energy thinking about food?
- Have a lot of negative thoughts about your body shape or size?
- Eat a variety of foods?
- Have flexibility in your eating patterns and habits?
The term orthorexia describes an obsession with “clean eating” that has started to cause significant distress by dominating someone’s daily life. There is growing expert consensus on what orthorexia looks like and the dangerous impact it can have on both adults and kids. Orthorexia is a “form of disordered eating” and parents should take it seriously.
Orthorexia is sometimes linked to body image concerns, as well. Parents who talk negatively about their bodies can imply to their kids that their body is either good or bad, based on appearance.
Help kids see food as fun and useful
When talking to your kids about food, try to help them see food as both fun and useful:
- Use an age-appropriate-level language to talk to your kids about food, ingredients and nutrients.
- Allow them to participate in the conversation about what they want to eat.
- Talk about food as a source of energy to fuel their bodies to do the things they want to do every day.
- Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad.” Talk about foods as “anytime” foods and “sometimes” foods. Anytime foods are those we should eat every day to nourish the body and mind. Sometimes foods are treats; eat those just for fun.
- Discuss portion control. Putting your snack in a bowl or cup instead of eating out of the package can help you avoid overeating “sometimes” foods.
If you think you or someone you love might be struggling with disordered eating, reach out. Ask for support from the people around you and talk to a doctor or mental health professional.
VA registered dietitians are also available as part of your health care team. They help disrupt problematic eating behaviors and help you work toward “normal” eating to keep you and your family healthy.
Contact your local VA to speak with a registered dietitian.
Erica Golden is a registered dietitian at the Sam Rayburn Memorial VA Medical Center’s Community Living Center.