Is sugar harmful? Should I start the paleo or keto diet? Do I really need to eat fat? Is dairy good or bad? HELP!
Our society and culture are constantly flooded with messages about nutrition: “food is medicine”, “you are what you eat”, “treat yourself!”
It seems like every day we are bombarded with the next “magical” solution — the cure to all our problems! And then, practically the next day, science turns and offers the exact opposite advice. Sifting through all the different messages can be confusing, overwhelming, and downright exhausting!
How do we navigate this sea of conflicting messages AND make sure we give our kiddos the tools they need to fuel their growing minds and bodies?
As a registered dietitian, I think about these messages often, and I see my patients overwhelmed by so much conflicting advice. I’d like to share with you the following three considerations to help you pass on positive food-related messages to those little eyes that are watching your every move:
1-Offer your family members a wide variety of foods
I see this often: parents are tempted to try to shelter kids from all the foods society deems as “bad” out there: cookies, cakes, candies, fried foods, fast foods, and processed foods. The reality, however, is that:
A) No matter how hard we may try, our children will eventually be exposed to these foods.
B) Restricting these foods from their lives will only make them want them more.
C) These so-called “bad” foods aren’t actually bad.
I know, I know, I can hear your brain screaming at me through your screen “what do you mean they’re not bad?!” Let me explain.
A) No matter how hard we may try, our children will eventually be exposed to these foods. This is pretty self-explanatory. Your kiddo will go to school, a friend’s house, or some other social event where they will see different foods. And, by nature, humans are curious, so they will more than likely try said foods, especially if they’ve never had them before. Which leads us to …
B) Restricting these foods from their lives will only make them want them more. Think of just about anything in life and you’ll find this holds true. You tell your child that they can’t have a certain toy or electronic device but that they can play with all the rest of the options they have. What do they do? They throw a fit about the “forbidden” item they want! The same goes with food – the more we restrict ourselves from having certain foods, the more we actually want them. Thank you, human brain! Lastly,
C) These so-called “bad” foods aren’t actually bad. I want to make one thing very clear. I’m not telling you to go ahead and eat pastries 6 times a day, 7 days a week. That would not feel very good. On the flip side, eating only kale 6 times a day, 7 days a week also wouldn’t feel too good.
It’s important to offer our bodies — and our children — a wide variety of foods. Proteins, starches, fruits, vegetables, “play foods” (remember: so-called “bad” foods aren’t really bad), dairy, fats, etc. This variety sets them up for success by allowing them to experiment with different foods and how they fuel their bodies. Offering a variety of foods without good/bad labels or judgment allows your child to tune into their bodies’ internal cues to decide what foods to eat in the moment.
Which leads us to #2:
2-Focus on the body’s hunger cues
If you haven’t heard yet, let me be the one to tell you - our bodies are SMART. We are born with the ability to feed ourselves in tandem with our bodies’ needs (with rare medical exceptions).
Think about toddlers — do they pass on breakfast because they know they’re going to have a bigger dinner tonight? Do they sit still and finish their food when they’ve had enough? Do they sit around all day planning their next meal? Are they silent when their body tells them they’re hungry — not letting someone around them know that it’s time to eat? 9.999/10 times the answer is NO. Toddlers tune into their bodies’ cues (again, with few exceptions) and have the natural ability to determine when, what, and how much to eat (with the caveat that they’re provided a variety of foods consistently).
Unfortunately, as humans get older and begin to hear different messages about food —be it from teachers, friends, parents, doctors, or media, our ability to listen inward gets more challenging. All the food and diet “noise” externally shifts the focus from listening to the body’s internal cues to making food decisions based on external rules or guidelines. The goal here is to preserve that innate ability to regulate our food (AKA energy) intake.
Take a look at the hunger scale below. This is a representation of how to externally describe our internal physiological hunger state. We know that the closer we get to Level 1 on the scale, the more irritable, “hangry,” and less rational we become. Getting to this stage makes us more prone to over-eat — or reach Level 10 on this scale. That does not feel good. On the other hand, reaching Level 10, being as uncomfortable as it is, makes us much more likely to claim we will “never eat again” to try to avoid being uncomfortable, which lands us right back at Level 1.
Noticing where along the scale we find ourselves at any point in time can give us a good insight into when and how much to eat. When we leave those decisions to our body in conjunction with the brain, rather than the brain alone, we do a better job of fueling our bodies.
Here are some guidelines to help us follow the hunger scale:
Start eating around Level 3, where you’re hungry but not famished, and stop somewhere around Level 7 or 8, where your body knows it feels nourished and satisfied.
Also, it’s important to note that going outside of these parameters do not indicate failure! Normal eaters sometimes get too hungry or over-full. There is no such thing as perfect eating and scrutinizing yourself will not be helpful in the process of listening to your hunger cues.
3- Model healthy habits for your family
Last, but definitely not least on the list of priorities, is modeling healthy habits for your kids. Here are a few tips:
1. Show them that you eat a wide variety of foods that include proteins, starches, “play” foods, fruits, veggies, etc.
2. Engage in movement that feels good – take walks with the family, go hiking, or play ball in the park.
3. Talk about eating because you’re hungry because food feels good in your body and/or because it tastes good.
4. Avoid talking about dieting, body image struggles, “needing” to work out or other compensation for eating, etc. This is not helpful in fostering confidence and self-trust in your kids.
5. Send the message that we eat because it fuels our bodies, helps us connect to others and brings us joy!
I know that many of the suggestions I outlined above are hard feats for us to accomplish in our current diet-obsessed culture. It’s important that we take the time for self-care and to do our own work in improving our own relationships with food and our bodies. And, please know that if you’re struggling with your body image or disordered eating, help is available.
Our kids are little sponges – they hear and see everything, even when we don’t realize it. Promoting positive health habits can be tricky, especially in our current polarized culture! The key to empowering our kids to care for themselves is modeling how we care for ourselves.
Including a variety of foods in our intake and learning to trust our bodies’ internal cues are two critical steps in caring for our bodies and showing our kids how to care for theirs, too. It’s important that we do our own work in building helpful habits for our lives so we can facilitate those conversations and pass on our knowledge to our children.
Tell us: How do you show yourself self-care? What do you wish you could change when it comes to teaching your kids positive health habits?
Adee Levinstein, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, is a registered dietitian at Eating Recovery Center in Austin, Texas. She completed her undergraduate studies in Medical Dietetics and went on to obtain a Master’s of Exercise Science. Adee’s passion lies in improving her clients’ relationships with food and movement.