I was sat in a coffee shop with my mum drinking a coffee and having a panini, when a young slender woman sat down behind us with her two young sons. The boys asked her why she wasn’t eating anything. She swiftly replied, “mummy’s not hungry, I’ve already had breakfast and I only eat when I’m hungry” Then she proceeded to ask her sons “what happens if people overeat?” to which they both replied “you get fat!”. Both mum and I were so shocked at what we’d heard, we sat open mouthed for several minutes. Something was very wrong with that exchange as we saw it and it prompted a conversation about how unhealthy that constant reminder must be for both those boys.
As a nation seemingly obsessed with weight, diet, food and health, alarm bells rang in my head at what I had just heard. Both those boys can’t have been older than ten years old, so already without having been exposed to the world’s media on the subject, they were being indoctrinated by their mother. They were having to recite the rules of how not to get fat.
There is no doubt that promoting healthy ideas about food and exercise at a young age is something that we can do, but is there such thing as going too far? Part of me couldn’t help thinking of the consequences of that conversation for those children. Maybe in the future they will feel the need to hide their eating from their mother, or even begin to use food as something they’re able to control. Is this likely as it’s hardly surprising given the view they had to uphold? The negative implications of imposing an opinion like that on our children are endless. However, it does pose the question of how and what we can do as adults to promote healthy relationships with food and body image? Can we look at ourselves to be the ones to help the younger generation to feel less pressure surrounding body image and weight? It’s possible that leading by example can help our youngsters to carry positive and helpful tools into the future with them.
As adults we are constantly exposed to adverts, advice and ideas about what we should and shouldn’t be eating. We also get told how much to eat, and at what time. For young people they are mostly sheltered from any kind of pressure during their very early years. This might be because their days are structured in school. However, we’ve all heard the teasing that goes on when one child stands out as different in some way from the others. Body image and fat are targets for teasing too. It feels as if therefore parents need to keep children healthy and as worry free as they can whilst helping them to learn to be themselves and be happy with who they are. The National Eating Disorder association suggests that 80% of 10-year olds are afraid of being overweight. So, how can we help them to be confident whilst teaching them healthy habits and ideas surrounding the food they eat?
All foods fit into a balanced diet, there is no such thing as a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food. It’s about fitting foods into a regimen that ensures variety and allows space for nice treats. Troubles with eating in your future life, can come from a multitude of factors, but healthy options and thoughts about food can be heavily weighted and influenced by the way we behave as adults around our kids. There was an interesting programme screened last night called ‘It’s your fault I’m fat’ about a 16-year-old girl called Evie, who weighed over 20 stone. She was very unhappy with herself, but the turning point came when she acknowledged this to her mum and stepdad. This encouraged her mum to recognise what she was doing in over-feeding her daughter and herself, and yet both needed to take responsibility for doing this. It was not her mother’s fault alone. I thought her Mum was lovely and very well intentioned but her own childhood loss and struggles came through in her eating habits. Food is often used for comfort when we are very unhappy.
The relationship with food for young people is easy to support and promote within your own house. Here are some suggestions: –
- Look at your own thoughts and feelings: children pick up so much from their parents and how they behave. Even discussions about being on a diet or how you’re avoiding certain foods can be easily picked up. As a family, you can create an environment that supports and nurtures your children.
- Eat together as this can be a big step towards helping your kids feel comfortable with food. Try to sit at a table, then mealtimes become about connecting and talking rather than food as the common factor.
- We make food such a big part of our lives when in fact it’s fuel and it powers our bodies. Our children need fuel too, so if we can get them to think of it as rocket fuel to power their lives, we can help them to understand which fuel helps them to last longer and work better.
- Avoid using food as a reward or punishment for your children. Treats can be part of your kids’ diet but using it as praise or a penalty can encourage food to have a more pivotal role or focus than needed.
- Typically, when we are on diets or watching our weight, we talk about it with others, even a sentence as short as ‘I’m laying off the carbs’ can be picked up by those around us.
- Teenagers particularly gain weight and change body shape regularly and this is completely normal. For some it can be a super stressful change. At this stage of their lives, try to teach them it’s part of growing up and becoming an adult.
- If we can model healthy ways to deal with our emotions and feelings about ourselves then we can encourage our children to do the same. This way we can try to prevent using food as a source of comfort that many of us feel guilty about. Our children need to understand how to experience sadness, frustration and anger without using food to soothe it. That way we can equip them better for life and avoid destructive habits like binging.
Simply trying to mind what we say around our kids can be the main step in creating healthy views on food in our households. If we are happy with ourselves and it comes across in the way we speak, then it’s picked up around us. Criticising ourselves is the main conversation we need to avoid, although possibly easier said than done! It’s an important way we can help ourselves feel good and encourage our kids to feel the same. Looking at ourselves and trying to minimise the negative conversations we have about being ‘fat’ or what constitutes being ‘fat’ can create a healthier relationship with food.
All our bodies are different and it’s important that our kids can understand that and carry it with them into future life.
By Georgina Murrin, First year Psychology Student, University of Norwich