Developing healthy eating habits and learning to love your body

Some tips to help parents teach their children how to love and respect their bodies and develop healthy eating habits.

Fostering healthy eating habits and a positive body image in children is not an easy task. With some unrealistic representations of bodies in the media and a range of not-so-healthy foods on supermarket shelves, how do we ensure our kids’ emotional and physical wellbeing is intact? 

‘W’ is for wellbeing NOT weight

It’s incredibly important to instill confidence in our children at a young age. Encouraging kids to develop a positive body image in early childhood can be crucial to their physical and emotional wellbeing in later years.

Body image expert and ambassador for the Butterfly Foundation, Dr Rick Kausman, says that despite the growing awareness among parents and health professionals about body image, he believes we’ve been focusing on the wrong ‘w’ for too long.

“Instead of ‘w’ for weight, we should be concentrating on ‘w’ for wellbeing. Kids are naturally different shapes and sizes, grow at different rates, and have varying appetites, so rather than putting the focus on their weight we need to support them to develop healthy behaviours around food.”

A recent American study found that parents who engaged in weight-related conversations, were more likely to raise adolescents with an increased risk of unhealthy or disordered eating behaviours such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

Conversely, teenagers whose parents focused more on healthy eating were less likely to diet or develop unhealthy eating behaviours.

‘Everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ foods

So what does this mean in English? Instead of describing food as ‘bad’ or ‘good’, ‘junk’ or ‘rubbish’, or saying things like ‘I’m trying to be good this week’, use neutral terms such as ‘everyday foods’ and ‘sometimes foods’.

Dr Kausman says, “These ‘sometimes foods’ are certainly out there, so if we make them forbidden, the research shows that those people with a perfectionist tendency will either eat none or risk developing disordered thinking around these foods and possibly ‘sneak eat’ [binge eat].”

kids drinking juice

What does ‘hungry’ mean?

American nutritionist Ellyn Satter coined the phrase ‘parents provide, kids decide’. The idea is that we provide the best environment for children to learn about food, but children have a say as to how much they eat and whether they want to eat a particular food.

If we insist on children eating foods they don’t like or amounts they can’t manage, it can be a sure way to disconnect them from listening to their own hunger signs.

Dr Kausman also believes in handing back some of the independence and power to children.

“We certainly don’t want to allow kids to run rampant in the kitchen, but we do want to encourage kids to listen to their body’s hunger signs. Kids will develop the ability to self-regulate, and this skill spills over into other areas of their lives.”

At mealtimes, children model the behaviour of their parents, so if you eat slowly and savour each mouthful, it’s likely your kids will do the same. It’s also worth encouraging children to try new foods and to eat with awareness. Ask them how hungry they are using questions like “What does your body do when it’s hungry? Does your tummy rumble?"

Also, Dr Kausman says, “It’s normal for kids to have less-hungry and more-hungry days, just like adults, so don’t force them to eat the same amount every day.”

“We certainly don’t want to allow kids to run rampant in the kitchen, but we do want to encourage kids to listen to their body’s hunger signs."

Our amazing bodies

Another way to empower our kids in early childhood is to talk about how amazing their bodies are. Dr Kausman recommends books such as Your Body is Awesome: Body Respect for Children by Sigrun Danielsdottir to begin the conversation about loving and respecting their bodies. 
The best way to ensure your child develops a positive body image? Be present – stay engaged from early childhood right up until adulthood, and watch that your own behaviour around food is instilling positive habits in your children. How do you feel about your body? If you are happy and positive about it, your children are more likely to  grow up with the same outlook. 

Make little moments matter

Bupa Health Insurance

Need help making healthy food choices for your family? A dietitian can provide personalised advice. Depending on your cover, costs towards some visits may be included under your private health insurance.

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