Sending the Right Messages

by BTM

Mon, 31 July 2017

Sending the Right Messages

Dietitian Hadeel Saad explains the importance of parents’ attitudes to food in combatting childhood obesity.

Perhaps even more important to our health and well-being than what we eat is how we feel about what we eat.

Children learn from their parents’ behaviour, through both imitation and role modelling, and one study suggests that the degree of control over child feeding influences eating attitudes and beliefs within families from a very early age. Evidence also indicates that unresolved body image concerns and disturbed feelings toward eating and weight management can be passed down from one generation to the next. 

Healthy mindsets and skills that can serve an individual well throughout life are difficult to teach for the parent with disordered eating. Behaviours such as eating rituals, obsessive preoccupations with food, and body image concerns, may distract parents from addressing their child’s need to learn about healthy eating.

Children notice when parents skip meals, restrict calories, purchase only ‘diet’ foods, exercise excessively, ritualise food intake, diet constantly and put themselves and their appearance down. 

As health professionals, we need to help parents become more aware of their own attitudes about food and weight and help them become more knowledgeable about what physical fitness and healthy eating really mean. 

Practitioners need to explain to parents that healthy eating does not mean dieting; they can eat moderately to satisfy hunger and not eat past the point of satiety. They also need to learn to choose wisely from a variety of foods they enjoy. 

Furthermore, parents need to be encouraged to eat together as a family. Studies have shown that sitting down with the family as often as possible enhances the health and wellbeing of children. The dining table is the best place to discover what children are feeling and thinking not only about food and weight, but about life in general.

Parents must also be mindful of the messages they convey concerning body image. A parent who is constantly dieting or making jokes about being ‘plump’ is sending a message that thin is better. Parents should also avoid negative comments about their own bodies as well as the size and shape of others.

A child’s healthy body image is rooted in feelings of self-acceptance and self-esteem, not in relation to his or her actual size or shape. Helping parents stay emotionally involved with their children, especially teenagers and young adults, is very important. 

The way you choose food and plan meals sends important messages to your child. By being thoughtful about what you eat and choosing options that are both tasty and nutritious, you let your child know that food is something that’s both enjoyable and fuel for the body.

The words you use to describe food send messages too. Avoid describing it as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘naughty’ and so on. You could try the terms ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ foods instead. Taking a balanced approach is helpful. This might mean enjoying your favourite treat – pizza, chocolate, potato chips etcetera – every now and then, but not all the time.

Eating when you’re hungry shows your child how to listen to their body’s hunger cues. This is likely to be healthier than ‘counting calories’ or eating when you’re bored, tired or down.

Involving your youngster in shopping for food and planning and preparing meals, gives them a say in healthy family eating. You could even get them browsing recipe websites for you. This taps into young people’s technology skills.

To motivate your child to make healthy choices, talk together about how food can help with concentration, performance and feeling good. 

A cupboard and fridge full of nutritious snacks helps, as you won’t have to ‘police’ their choices so much. Some ideas are: fresh fruit, dried fruit and nuts, low-fat cheese and wholegrain dry biscuits, low-fat yoghurt, baked beans with wholegrain toast, low-fat fruit smoothies and vegetable sticks with low-fat dips.