How can I prevent my children inheriting my issues with food?
We all want our children and grandchildren to inherit only the best from us - the best health, the best lifestyle, and the best relationship with food. Addiction, over-eating and eat-guilt-eat cycles are behaviours we would like to overcome - and behaviours we certainly don't want to pass on. But how can we instil in the next generation a more positive relationship with food if we feel our own relationship with food is broken? Dietitian Suzanna shows us how "intuitive eating" might just be the way to start.
Intuitive eating is a flexible eating style that focuses on trusting - and following - physical hunger and satiety cues to guide when, what and how to much to eat. Eating intuitively is associated with numerous physical and psychological benefits.
We are all born intuitive eaters. Consider how a hungry baby will cry until fed and then turn his or her head away when satiated. So where along the way did so many of us lose this skill?
Almost every client I speak with can recall a time when they were forced to finish their plate before being excused from the table, were bribed to eat their vegetables with the offer of dessert, or had good behaviour rewarded with favourite foods.
Our parents had the best of intentions. They controlled our food choices and quantities in the hope of promoting our health and growth. What they didn't realise, however, is that these practices eroded our ability to recognise hunger and satiety, and in turn our ability to self-regulate our food and energy intake. Studies show that this can result in problematic eating behaviours that persist into adulthood.
Take a moment to reflect on the following examples. Do any of these resonate with you?
Pressure to finish what is in front of us erodes our ability to stop eating when no longer hungry - leading to non-hungry eating (eating in the absence of hunger).
Restricting foods, or even labelling foods as "good" or "bad", increases desire to obtain and eat these "forbidden" foods - leading to overeating of these foods when they are available.
Offering palatable foods as a reward teaches us to look to food as a reward - leading to emotional eating.
Studies show that if we, as parents, have a history of overweight, dieting or emotional eating, we will be more likely to restrict our children's food intake, especially if we perceive our child as overweight or at risk of becoming so. But we know that restriction with the aim of promoting moderation has been shown to have the opposite effect. So what can we do?
The best place to start is to model to our children the behaviours we want them to inherit. Consider this quote from a well-known book on intuitive eating:
"What a parent does behaviourally is more powerful than anything they can every say - parent, heal thyself."
But where to start? Here are some ideas:
If you feel compelled to finish everything on your plate - give yourself permission to leave a little behind, and encourage your children that it's ok to do the same.
If you find yourself feeling guilty after overeating "forbidden" foods - allow yourself time and space to enjoy (and I mean really enjoy - see our Mindful Eating article) small portions of these foods, and allow your children to do the same.
If you find yourself looking to food for comfort - write a list of alternative relaxing activities to turn to first, and help your children do the same.
The good news is that you don't need to master intuitive eating before you can start modelling it to your children or grandchildren. Children often adapt to intuitive eating more quickly than adults because they haven't had the same length of time to unlearn what was initially an innate ability.
For specific strategies to introduce intuitive eating to your family, check out the following resources.
Mindful Eating: an introduction to the 5 key principles of mindful (intuitive) eating. You can access the article here.
Ellen Satter's Division of Responsibility: encourages parents to take leadership with the what, when and where of mealtimes while allowing the child to determine how much and whether to eat of the food provided. You can access a summary here.
The A-B-C Approach to Teaching Kids About Intuitive Eating: a great article breaking down the complex concept of intuitive eating into three simple steps. You can access the article here.
Baby-led Weaning: stepping away from traditional parent-led spoon feeding, this approach encourages babies to feed themselves from the very first mouthful - promoting intuitive eating, autonomy and hand-eye coordination. You can access a summary here.
Dennett, C. (2018). Children's Nutrition: Raising Intuitive Eaters. Today's Dietitian. 20(3):14.
Tribole, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. 3rd Edition. New York.
Tylka, T, et al. (2015). Maternal intuitive eating as a moderator of the association between concern about child weight and restrictive child feeding. Appetite. 95:158-165.