This is such a huge subject and it’s not likely to hit everything in one post but I want to open the discussion since the topic has been swirling around since…forever. I finally decided to write about it because I’ve now talked with two friends whose daughters are experiencing eating issues as well as seeing concerning things on a FB page for parents.
If you’re now “of a certain age” (let’s say over 40) then chances are good you were brought up by a mom who dieted or worried about being thin. While she may not have applied it directly to you, at the very least you were aware of your mother’s dissatisfaction with her body. She may have called herself fat, or remarked that she was dieting. She might have told you about things she couldn’t wear because she was “hippy” or that she needed to hide “problem spots.” Then people who meant well told you that you were “just like your mom.” See how this starts?
My own mom unintentionally gave me body issues. I know she didn’t mean to and she’d be appalled to know how many years it took me to get over these things I internalized and ran with in the formulation of my identity. At age 32 something clicked and I began eating for health and working out for fitness over what the scale said. For full disclosure, the negative self-talk still occasionally creeps in which is why I’m passionate about helping girls before it starts.
How do we help girls and young women cultivate a healthy mindset around food and their bodies? It’s tricky.
Let’s start with food. I love to eat. I love trying new flavors, experimenting in the kitchen, and going out to new restaurants. Food makes me happy in many ways. While we need food for sustenance, food is not simply fuel: food is cultural and traditional, food is celebratory, food is mournful, and in a culture obsessed with labeling ourselves in order to have a connection, food has become a way to be identified. How many times have you heard people say “I’m Nancy and I’m a [insert vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, keto, low-carb, pescatarian, lactose-ovo whatever here]? Food has become complicated. Throw in the allergies and sensitivities that so many people experience and it can be downright stressful. Add a young girl who thinks she needs to be thin, and you end up with a confused child who doesn’t know what to eat or why!
I love the simple, common-sense application I was taught at the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute: traffic light eating. This is a concept you can teach young children to simplify good nutrition but it’s very applicable to all ages. In short, green light foods are a GO! They are the foods that help kids to run fast, grow strong, dance longer, hit the ball harder, or whatever activity they like to do. They happen to be good for their growing bodies but we don’t have to say that – as a matter of fact, sometimes when you tell young kids that something is “good for them” they decide right then and there that they don’t want it! Simply say that these are foods that help them do the things they enjoy. Green light foods include: colorful veggies and fruits that are grown not manufactured, low in calories and yet high in nutrients. They can be eaten raw. Yellow light foods are the ones that are still necessary for a healthy diet but in moderation: meat, eggs, dairy products, whole grain pasta, beans, etc. Red light foods are not nutrient-dense but they are calorie-dense. Think processed or fast food and things that are high in calories, fat, and sugar while being low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. We know that these will not always be eliminated but we should definitely limit these types of foods. There is certainly nothing wrong with the occasional cookie or birthday cake – this is part of the celebratory and cultural thing I mentioned earlier! But remember, when something happens every day it’s no longer special, it’s a habit.
If you have a young child, try using a “grazing tray” (use a muffin pan) filled with bite-sized fruits and veggies to help develop their palate at a young age while giving them a choice. Didn’t do that and now you have a picky teen? It’s not too late: you’ll have to change the language around and make it so that they feel empowered to try new foods. The choice is theirs to a degree. The key is to making it about health and performance, rather than about weight and appearance. While poor eating habits may not result in illness or disease as a teen, over time improper or unbalanced nutrition catches up. Educating kids early on may help them make better choices when faced with deciding what to eat.
American teens are so athletically involved these days that quality nutrition is essential for their performance, their safety (a malnourished person gets injured more easily), and their recovery. It’s a tricky line to straddle for kids who are involved in activities that trend toward a thin body type like dance, gymnastics, or cheerleading, where eating disorders are often found.* Parents and coaches have a responsibility to address healthy nutrition with developing bodies, working with the kids to explain that bodies change shape with growth. It’s normal, expected, and not a problem. If your child is not athletic, encouraging family exercise or play-time that is fun is a must. I’m often asked what the best exercise is and my standard answer is “The one you enjoy and will do consistently.” Make it a priority to explore activities that get your family moving and having fun! There is one thing that I will beg you to be cautious about: please monitor your talk about your own body or the bodies of other people. Your daughter is taking her cues from you, as I mentioned earlier. If you talk about exercising being a chore, being fat, or dieting, she will learn that. If you discuss being fit, healthy, and strong, she is likely to have that as her base for nutrition and exercise decision-making.
The bombardment with images of “perfect” bodies through advertising and social media can be confusing, scary, and depressing for teens. Puberty comes with changing bodies, new sexual feelings that are hard to process, and body shaming or teasing from other kids. It’s the job of adults to assist with this transition as much as possible (and without horrifying the teen in the process!!). Sharing some of the new advertising aimed at body-inclusivity might be a great way to start a discussion. And if your kid doesn’t want to talk to you? No worries. Email or text the occasional interesting, educational link and let them watch on their own. They will.
Lastly, there is much proof that proper nutrition affects mental wellness. Dietary changes that favor whole foods over processed foods containing artificial sweeteners, food dyes, and preservatives have been shown to help with depression and anxiety. Probiotics show promise in this area too. Since we’re finally starting to emerge from the most anxiety-producing time in recent history, this might be a great moment to incorporate small changes that benefit your entire family’s mental and physical health.
*If you suspect body image issues, find a coach or a therapist who can help. For eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, you must find a specialist/nutritionist to work with your child.