Instilling Healthy Habits Through Positive Food Talk

Contributing Author: Isabelle Wilson

I’ve been an RD for almost 10 years now, and I like to think I’ve heard it all when it comes to absolute bogus food and nutrition claims. “I don’t eat any sugar. I only eat 1,000 calories a day! You shouldn’t eat storebought peanut butter. Aren’t bananas bad for you?” These are just some of the questions I’ve been asked and statements I’ve been told. I’ve had teenagers come through my office traumatized by the straight-up false “education” they received about nutrition in health class. I’ve had parents restricting their children’s food intake for reasons completely unbacked by scientific evidence. Today’s post is all about retraining ourselves in how we think about and relate to food. How did something as simple as nourishing our bodies get SO complicated? Nutrition doesn’t need to be complicated. As much as this post is for anyone who eats and relates to food, it’s especially important for those who are responsible for impressionable young people; parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches, and daycare providers, to name a few.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from being a mom, it’s that young kids are like a sponge. They hear and remember EVERYTHING. We need to be so careful what we say around them, especially when our comments can potentially influence how they view food, their bodies, and their self-worth. I don’t think any parent intentionally tries to harm a child by the way they talk about food and body. If anything, it’s coming from a caring place. We DO want our kids to eat more veggies and less added sugar, we DO want our kids to be open to trying a variety of foods. But the way this information is presented is extremely important. Kids’ thinking is much more black and white than ours. They aren’t able to see nuance in nutrition messaging. So, how exactly do we keep food and body talk neutral, or even better, positive?

First, let’s not label food as “good” or “bad.” I truly believe that all foods fit, and work hard to get my clients on board with this. Thanks to diet culture (the system of beliefs that elevates certain foods and body types while demonizing others), we are largely brainwashed to believe that some foods are “good/healthy” and other foods are “bad/unhealthy.” Even if not directed at or criticizing a child’s eating habits, when adults talk about eating using statements like “I ate so bad today,” kids pick up on that negativity, leading to beliefs that there are good and bad foods. While it’s true that some foods contain higher nutrient contents than others, foods with lower nutrient contents are certainly not “bad foods.” There IS room in the diet for these lower nutrient content “discretionary foods.” Food is food. When you look at the nutrition research (I’m talking randomized controlled trials, not media headlines), it is extremely difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about one food or nutrient. If you’ve ever actually read a scientific paper, usually the last sentence states “more research is needed.” Part of being a great clinician is admitting that we DON’T know everything, especially about nutrition, one of the youngest sciences out there with ever-changing scientific findings. So, let’s not think about individual foods in terms of good or bad, yes or no, healthy or unhealthy.

My second suggestion for instilling healthy habits through positive food talk is to stay away from commenting about how your child is eating, UNLESS you know FOR SURE that they respond well to comments. Avoiding comments is especially true for kids who have some real eating struggles (be it avoidant or restrictive eating behaviors, disliking many foods, or just a low appetite). Imagine a scenario where you have one child who is exploratory and likes many different foods, and another child at the table who is a very hesitant eater. By making comments to the exploratory eater like “great job! You ate all your food!”, what is that doing to the hesitant eater? From experience in working with families, I can tell you that one outcome is that the hesitant eater thinks “why bother? I can’t eat as good as him,” further decreasing their already limited food intake. The days of the “clean plate club” are over. No more “finish your plate” or “no dessert until your veggies are gone.” If you and your child have worked with me, you know about the Division of Responsibility (based on the work of Ellyn Satter). Parents decide WHAT food is offered and WHEN, and kids decide IF they are going to eat and HOW MUCH. They don’t need us commenting, interfering, pressuring, or praising.

Lastly, as much as I shout these messages from the rooftops, there will always be caregivers out there who have never heard of the Division of Responsibility or thought twice about how the comments they make about their own body can impact a child. Remember that even though you might instill these positive food talk practices at home, away from home could be a different story. Have an open line of communication with your child and let them know that the rules that you set in place at home are the case no matter where they are. If needed, talk to your family members and caregivers too as a way of helping them create a healthy relationship with food and body for your child. Sometimes daycares and preschools have “rules” about the order of foods that need to be eaten at snack or lunch time. If you need help navigating this, reach out to me! There are resources out there to address this very issue that I can share with you.

So, remember, food is food, bodies are bodies, and there’s so much more to a healthy child (and parent) than just what they eat.

If you have any questions related to this topic, drop a comment below!

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