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How to Give Your Kids the Skills to Eat Healthy for Life

The cultural signals could not be more confusing to children: Everywhere they look, our kids are confronted by beauty icons who are disturbingly below the average weight -- this, even as the food industry continues to embrace the trend of super-sized portions.
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I've always been fascinated by the relationship people have with food. For years, I was a professional dancer, and when we weren't on stage, my fellow artists and I were obsessed with dieting. Our lives revolved around what we ate, what we didn't eat and all those forbidden foods in between. This was our world.

Eventually, some of the dancers in our troupe had to give up thriving careers when their dietary obsessions turned life-threatening. Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating routinely sent good and talented people packing. But even those with lesser degrees of "disordered" eating were, in a way, imperiled. Their anxiety about food might not have been harmful to their health, but their preoccupation with it made them miserable.

In 1988, I left dancing to become a psychiatric social worker. Safely settled in a profession where one's livelihood didn't depend on being thin (have you ever heard of a patient dumping a shrink for gaining a few pounds?), I felt liberated. I also stopped dieting.

As I played around with eating the foods I had always considered off-limits, I began to reconnect with my body's signals and normalize my habits: I would allow myself that chocolate bar after my sandwich at lunch, or the occasional bowl of ice cream before bed.
My only rule was I had to eat when I was hungry, and stop when I was full.

Ironically, once I was less preoccupied with food, I actually wound up eating less and dropped the 10 pounds I had always fretted about. This was not only a valuable lesson for me, but also one that I have seen repeated among the hundreds of patients who would come to me to help them solve their eating problems.

Central to my work today are the concerns parents have about helping their kids develop healthy eating habits. Feeding our children is one of the first and most primal ways we nurture them, so it's up to us to assist them in establishing smarter and better relationships with food.

But helping parents help their children with food issues has become increasingly complicated in recent years, especially given the sobering statistics: 81% of today's 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat, while the number of overweight youngsters ages 6 to 11 has tripled since the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the cultural signals could not be more confusing to children: Everywhere they look, our kids are confronted by beauty icons who are disturbingly below the average weight -- this, even as the food industry continues to embrace the trend of super-sized portions. (Have you noticed that the size of the regular chocolate bar or snack is getting larger and larger? The latter, I'm convinced, has created in our kids a higher satiety signal -- the inner alarm that tells us we're full -- resulting in chronic overeating.)

So, how do we give our children the tools to manage these two extremes? It all comes down to helping them connect with their own bodies.

"Imposing a lot of (parental) control is really counterproductive," says Leann Birch, a psychologist at Penn State who specializes in kids' eating habits. "If you focus on external factors -- like how much food is left on the plate, or what time it is -- then children get out of touch with their internal cues for when they are hungry and when they are full."

If, as Birch recommends, we shouldn't become food wardens at home -- forbidding junk food or candy, or depriving our kids of a burger and fries when that's what all their friends are eating -- we certainly can fill their plates with basic skills about nutrition and food that, with any luck, will follow them into adulthood.

The Four Skills To Build Healthy Eating for Life

There are skills parents can give their kids to help them develop healthier eating habits and they are comprised of the following:

  • The motivation to understand how nutrition works for their bodies (such as telling them that the milk they're drinking is going to make their bones grow and, therefore, help them climb that tree or score that goal or grow into those roller blades they've been asking about).

  • The power to stay connected to their bodies' signals of hunger and fullness and to eat accordingly. "You are the expert on your own body," I tell parents to tell their kids, "so it's your job to listen to what it's telling you and to take care of it."
  • The ability to separate hunger from other feelings, such as boredom, sadness or anxiety, which often result in eating. Time and again, I have seen how a well-placed hug can be just as satisfying to kids as reflexive snacking.
  • The skill to make smart decisions around food -- which means not sacrificing those treats that "make the tongue happy," but instead to manage those cravings rationally and realistically.
  • Thankfully, there are healthier foods available in the wake of the obesity awareness. I'm encouraged to read about the greater attention that's being paid to the nutritional content of school lunches. Even on TV, the Cookie Monster has begun championing healthy food choices (albeit with his mouth full).

    The focus needs to be on access to healthier foods and education of course, however even with this, we ultimately need to help kids develop their own decision-making skills -- to find a way to negotiate their own Cookie Monsters. This is how we teach our children to manage food for life.

    This is our job.

    Donna Fish is the author of Take the Fight Out of Food: How to Prevent and Solve Your Child's Eating Problems. (Atria). She runs a private practice in Manhattan and is a consultant at Mount Sinai Hospital, NYC, and is presenting on childhood eating problems in the upcoming Harvard Medical School Eating Disorder Conference.