How To Talk To Kids About Food To Promote A Healthy Body Image

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Image by Nabi Tang / Stocksy

In the midst of the day-to-day rush to get the kids ready in the morning, send them off to school, pick them up after work, make them dinner, brush their teeth, and get them to bed—alongside all the other things going on in your life that have nothing to do with them—it can sometimes be easy to forget just how malleable these little people are and how every word and interaction can have a long-lasting impact.

Take food for example. A new study published in the Journal of Psychology looked at how family conversations about food that kids heard growing up can affect the way they feel about their bodies years later when they’re adults. As it turns out, the more critical or restrictive messages kids hear in childhood, the more likely they are as adults to exhibit body shame, inflexible eating patterns, and even eating disorders. In fact, these negative caregiver messages and the resulting negative strategies they produce accounted for some 70 percent of the difference between folks with and without eating disorders.

Researchers surveyed over 400 women between ages 18 and 40 to understand how their earliest caregivers talked to them about food, their current feelings about their own bodies, their current eating patterns, and any current disordered eating behaviors they had.

“Findings suggested that women who recall more restrictive/critical caregiver eating messages tend to present more body-image-focused shame experiences and to adopt more inflexible eating rules and, consequently, engage in disordered eating and behaviors,” the researchers explain in the paper.

And to clarify, we’re not simply talking about "mean parents" who make fun of their children’s weight. Even the most well-intentioned conversations about healthy eating practices can be spun the wrong way, the researchers explain. They go on:

Parents often worry about their children's health and so they try to increase children's intake of nutrient dense foods (e.g., "eat vegetables") or restrict children's access to and intake of "unhealthy" or "junk" foods (e.g., "you can't have any cookies"). Parents use these strategies to promote healthier habits in children, and perhaps even prevent obesity. However the results of research reveal such attempts can have negative effects on children's food preferences and their self-regulation of energy intake. … In addition, feeding control practices and messages may likely continue to influence body attitudes and eating behaviours, even after the decrease or cease of children’s direct exposure to these messages.

A key takeaway of these findings is simply paying heed to the specific ways we talk about food and eating with our kids. It's important to focus on positive, encouraging, benefits-focused messages instead of ones that emphasize restriction, warn about negative consequences, or feel like pressure. Indeed, when it comes to actually seeing results, even research on adults show positive goals around food that have to do with “pursuing and engaging” in healthy eating behaviors are more effective than negative goals about “avoiding unhealthy behaviors.”

Dr. Bobbi Wegner, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with families, encourages parents to be very conscious about even offhand remarks made about people on TV or other random people’s bodies. Our kids are always listening and absorbing.

Instead of critical messages about food, Dr. Wegner recommends helping kids connect with their bodies and how they feel when they take care of them: “Look for opportunities in your home to talk about how you feel when you eat healthfully and exercise. Ask kids to notice this in themselves. When do they feel best? After a good night's sleep? After a healthy meal? After drinking lots of water?” she writes. “Prioritize how well your body is functioning based on how you are treating it. Use the car and fuel as an analogy. Kids understand that the car won’t work if you put rocks in the gas tank!”

Exercising mindfulness around the way these food conversations are framed within the family can help ensure our kids are growing up with a deep love for their body ingrained in them—and healthful habits that support it.

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