Why is it important for parents to model healthy eating?
Social psychologists have long explored how social experiences shape our cognitions and behavior. This type of learning, known as observational learning, provides children with the opportunity to watch a “model” (aka parent, sibling or authority figure) as they react to events in their environment. Observational learning is one of the most natural types of learning that we have available to us. The idea is we watch what the model does in a given scenario and then process that scenario or schema as desirable or undesirable; ultimately our behaviors are shaped by watching how others interact with their environment. We mimic and mirror what we see and have learned is valuable to our family system.
Food is a fundamental aspect of the human experience, we all need nutrients to survive and thrive. Unfortunately in today’s society, we have become hyper aware of image and perfection as a symbol for worthiness, resulting fad diets, preoccupation with weight / image, and a generalized sense of dissatisfaction with ourselves in comparison to a perceived ideal. Despite the negative impacts societal pressures can have on an individual’s image or self-esteem, there are many ways parents can buffer the effects of these pressures, not the least of which is healthy modeling. What does this mean? In short it’s teaching your kids to develop a healthy relationship with food by setting a positive example.
Our kids are watching us all the time (we aren’t as sneaky as we think we are), they see us reading labels and being conscious which is great! It’s a great opportunity for us to teach our children about food, nutrition, and healthy eating. Conversely, they see us cringing at calories, judging ourselves and our bodies in the mirror, and they sense the importance of image. We can be a gateway to a healthy lifestyle or we can inadvertently tell our kids that food is the enemy and image is everything. It’s easy to think this learning would have to be overt, that a dance teacher who pinches her students back would obviously result in an unhealthy relationship with food. But it can, and often does, happen far more subtlety, watching mom choose a salad time and again instead of getting what she really wants because she has attached a value to the food as bad. As with most things, moderation is key, it’s not so much what you are eating or feeding your family as it is the relationship with the food and experiences.
What language should parents use/not use, around kids, to prevent unhealthy eating beliefs and behaviors?
Try to avoid making comparisons or comments, especially image oriented ones. For example don’t say,”Oh, Molly is so small, and I am just fat” or “Your friend Jen is so small and cute” “Comparisons like this aren’t helpful in promoting a positive self-image.
Kids going through growth spurts often grow out before they grow up. When your kids are in these spurts, don’t poke at them or their chubby cheeks. In general, try not to use all or nothing statements. That ice cream will make you fat, or those cookies are going to go straight to my hips. No one has ever died from a scoop of ice cream, just like if you eat a cookie or a few cookies, it doesn’t mean you are no longer loveable because your skinny jeans got a little snug. Kids don’t always have the gift of discernment, that’s another reason healthy modeling is so important. We get to teach them that food can be a wonderful and connecting experience. If you wouldn’t want someone saying it to you, then you probably shouldn’t say it to your child, they’re people too, just younger and more impressionable.
How do our kids (unknowingly) teach us how to eat healthy?
Our bodies have natural triggers that tell us when we are hungry and when we are full. People don’t have to be taught when to eat or not, it’s a natural process that occurs and that we can become mindful of as we develop. Children haven’t yet learned to ignore their inner cues and will often adhere to appropriate portions when they are allowed to choose. Kids listen to their bodies, if they have cravings they typically fulfill them and move on with what they are doing. They don’t assign value or judgement to foods which means they are naturally more healthy in regard to portion control and enjoying the eating experience.
How can we achieve health while feeling care free in the process?
Barring an allergy, one scoop, or cup, or plate of anything is not going to leave an indelible mark on our psyche or bodies. Remaining mindful as you eat and making food preparation a process and an act of love for yourselves and others can be a great way to bring joy and peace to a moment. If you struggle with your relationship with food, affirmations can be a great way to break the negative thought pattern. It may feel artificial at first, but keep saying the words, internalize that sense of peace with the food and the process of being healthy. Exercise can be a great way to mitigate depressive symptoms, as the endorphins released during and after a workout boost mood. Additionally, this can be a great way to channel your energy by doing something positive and active with your body, see what you are capable of, know that you are a blessing and that your body is a gift.
There have been many times that a client, fresh from residential treatment or partial hospitalization, has told me that he or she is surprised to return home to find that nothing has really changed. Life around them is still the same. Sure, they learned some skills in treatment but it didn’t solve the life challenges that can be so triggering. Sometimes in the moment emotions are so overwhelming that our first instinct is to return to the coping mechanism that’s become so ingrained in our daily existence. One client actually told me that she didn’t see a point in working so hard on recovery if nothing around her was going to change. She would rather cling to the one thing that’s been consistent in her life: her eating disorder.
Eating disorders are about different things for different people, and at some point in every sufferer’s journey they serve a purpose. For the person who has a difficult home life, the eating disorder may be where she retreats for comfort and control in the chaos. For the person with perfectionistic tendencies who has found that he can’t possibly excel at everything, the eating disorder is something he has complete power over and therefore can excel at. This is part of what makes eating disorders so difficult to give up- underneath the physical and psychological wreckage are definite reasons that hanging on to the illness is reasonable and even necessary.
The problem is that on some level we know that the eating disorder cannot be sustained. We cannot continue to restrict food and expect to live. We cannot binge and purge or over-exercise and expect to lead a healthy, high-functioning life. The physical body clings to every morsel of nourishment and may seem to be able to run on fumes indefinitely. Eventually, the body will crash but the mind will continue to come up with what seem like totally rational reasons to keep pushing. Sometimes, not even hospitalization is enough to spur a leap into recovery.
Life can be a shock for people returning to home, school, or work after inpatient or residential treatment. There is something of a protective bubble in higher levels of care. The intensive treatment provides a safe place for recovery to begin and skills to be learned. It is one thing to apply skills in the treatment milieu or even in family therapy sessions, but it is far another to try to apply them in the overwhelming situations that life can throw at us. According to a study discussed in the Science of Eating Disorders, following intensive residential treatment most women noticed a reduction in behaviors (i.e. they were able to maintain a healthy weight) but cognitive symptoms and thought patterns were still very much present. The cognitive changes that allow us to be able to handle life without the eating disorder take much more time to develop, which is why a solid outpatient program is so important.
The Science of Eating Disorders article lists the major factors that assist people in maintaining recovery:
Social support: maintaining connections with family, friends, and treatment team
Skills application: continued practice of assertiveness, communication, and meal planning skills
Stepping outside oneself: returning to work or school, volunteering, working on higher values all help the focus return to life rather than eating disorder.
Not surprisingly, one major factor that inhibits maintained recovery is loss of support and lack of structure. The importance of these cannot be overstated. People with eating disorders must engage treatment and refuse isolation, even on the worst days. This takes courage and often a profound show of “acting as if” until it becomes easier. Especially as clients return to challenging life situations, the right support can make all the difference.
Science of Eating Disorders (2012). Maintaining Change Following Intensive Eating Disorder Treatment. www.scienceofeds.org