A few thoughts shared on LBC around how to encourage healthy eating
How to help children feel more confident about their body image
Everywhere we look we are bombarded with weight shaming messages extolling ideals of thinness such as the latest fad diet promising ‘fat blasting secrets’. There is a constant stream of unrealistic images in the media. It is extremely hard to ignore this and we automatically compare ourselves unfavourably with what we see. Recent research has highlighted how weight stigma, particularly in children, not only leads to weight gain but has profound effects on their mental health.
This issue of body dissatisfaction has become so intense that one study found that over half of female university students would prefer to be run over by a truck rather than be fat. Yet an escalating obesity epidemic has meant that more people are falling short of their ideal which is leading to a range of physical and mental health issues such as eating disorders and low self-esteem.
Children are picking up these messages at a very young age. Studies have found that nearly half of girls aged 3-6 years old were concerned about being fat; a third of 5-year-old girls were restricting their diet in order to remain slim.
Parents can play a really important role in redressing the balance, so that children value their attributes more than their appearance and reject the fat shaming messages that are so pervasive. Yet many parents have themselves spent a lifetime battling with their weight, a habit that depletes them and stops them living life to the full. They are so trapped by the dieting culture that their children are picking up the message that unless they are losing weight, they won’t be a ‘good’ person.
What Can Parents Do?
Do practice what you preach
You are a big influence on your children’s lives and if you are content with your body, irrespective of size, your child will learn that feeling good is not weight dependent.
Don’t talk about your child’s weight
Numerous studies suggest that encouraging children to diet or lose weight, even in a well-meaning way lowers their self-esteem and promotes disordered eating. Furthermore, dieting to lose weight rarely works in the long-term; recent research found that more than 99% of obese people who had lost weight, regained it within a 10-year period.
Do talk about good health
You want your child to be healthy, and this doesn’t rely on weight. Good health comes in all shapes and sizes and many doctors now favour using such measures as waist circumference, blood pressure and cholesterol rather than weight to determine health risk. If you are worried about your child’s well-being then promote healthy behaviours that can be fun for all the family such as going for a bike ride or going for a walk.
Don’t label foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’
This reinforces the notion that you are ‘bad’ for wanting to eat those foods. Additionally, too much emphasis on ‘bad’ foods to avoid can make the child feel deprived and more likely to want to eat those foods.
Do talk about food in a positive way
Teach children how to have a healthy relationship with food by listening to their own body cues for when they are hungry and when they feel full. Explain the difference between nutritious foods that are essential for growth and development and less healthy foods that taste nice.
Don’t compliment people about their weight loss
Every time you compliment someone about their weight loss, you imply that it is appropriate to make comments about people’s size and that ‘thin’ is good and ‘fat’ is bad. It also suggests that their previous size was socially unacceptable which can make it even harder if they regain the weight.
Do talk about the dangers of weight stigma
Research suggests that while society has become less racist and homophobic, it has also become more discriminating regarding weight. There is a clear need for social change and we can’t totally protect our children from this kind of fat shaming. However, by instilling in them a core belief that values body acceptance they will be more resilient when dealing with this kind of stigma and more caring and sensitive to others who are subjected to such abuse.
Ironically when people stop worrying about their weight, they are less likely to gain weight. A group of female university students participated in a programme to teach body positivity and reject pressures to be slim. Two years later the students in the study hadn’t gained as much weight as those who had not participated. These students were less concerned about being thin, and were therefore less likely to comfort eat and engage in unhealthy weight loss habits that tend to fail.
It can be very easy for parents, especially if they think their child has a weight issue to say things like ‘do you really need that extra helping’ or ‘you would look so much better if you lost a few pounds’. Parents intentions may be good but shaming your children, only makes them feel worse and is reinforcing the idea that you need to be a certain size to be successful in life.
The reality is that despite parents doing their best to help their children to feel more confident about their bodies, it may still be hard for them to navigate a society with such deeply embedded ideals of thinness. However, by laying down the foundation stones of body acceptance in their early years, children will not only feel more positive about themselves and others, but also help to eradicate weight stigma.
By Tracey Bennett
All parents want their children to have the best start in life and the British Nutrition Foundation know that a vital part of this is providing them with a healthy, balanced diet. One of the cornerstones of a balanced diet, once solid foods are introduced, is eating fruits and vegetables. But it is well known that most UK adults aren’t getting their 5 a day and there is growing concern that many children are also not getting enough fruits and vegetables in their diet.
Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can provide a number of important micronutrients for developing children, as well as dietary fibre and additional hydration. However, while fruits may be broadly accepted due to their sweetness, many vegetables are far less sweet and contain bitter flavours that children may dislike. Fruits are great to include, but it’s important that children learn to like and eat vegetables too as these provide a different range of nutrients and get children used a wider range of tastes and textures.
As well as bitter tastes, food neophobia – a fear of new or unfamiliar foods – can also be responsible for the rejection of newly introduced foods. Neophobia is common between the ages of 2 and 6 and results in much of the fussiness that is seen in this age group.
Parents are therefore faced with a dilemma when introducing children to new foods. On the one hand, they know it is important to give their children a healthy start but on the other, rejected foods can lead to food waste, conflict at meal and snack times and a concern that children are going hungry. There are many common strategies that parents use to try and get children to eat vegetables but unfortunately some are not always effective. These include:
- Coercion or forcing, which can increase the child’s disliking of the food due to the stress of the situation,
- Using foods as a reward, which studies shows decreases the liking for the vegetable and actually increases liking of the food used as the reward,
- Hiding vegetables in meals, which does get children to eat vegetables, but since they don’t know they are there they remain unfamiliar with them and may reject them later.
Research has shown that the best way to get children to accept vegetables is to offer them over and over again. The difficulty with this is that it can take between 8 and 15 tries before it works! This is where the See & Eat project can really help. The idea is to allow children to become familiar with vegetables outside of mealtimes and to therefore more readily accept them, without the stress of preparing foods that are then refused.
The See & Eat project is funded by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology and led by psychologists at the University of Reading and with partners including the British Nutrition Foundation. The team has produced eBooks with images and text about many different vegetables, which parents can download and adapt as they wish with new text and pictures. Early research with physical copies of these books has shown promising results, as children who read them tend to have a higher acceptance of the target vegetable. With the new eBooks, the project hopes to be able to reach many more families, and additional research into the effects of these books is underway.
As well as the vegetable eBooks, the project team has also developed a number of free resources, including colouring sheets, shopping lists and games to support parents and carers with activities to bring healthy eating to life.
If you’d like to learn more about the project or download some of the eBooks for yourself, head to www.seeandeat.org
Last week, I stumbled across an amazing website that I wanted to share with you.
A mother of 4 in the US has created online healthy cooking classes for kids that are really simple to follow and give children from toddlers through to teens more confidence in the kitchen. Kids Cook Real Food has a wealth of articles, recipes and ideas to get kids into cooking.
Here are a couple of links to some of my favourite articles on the site, which should prove very useful over the holidays:
20 Healthy recipes that kids can make by themselves for those of you whose children are ALWAYS asking you what’s for dinner.
Free ebook full of healthy snacks kids can make which will help with the constant refrain “Mum can I have a snack”.
I have always spoken to parents about the importance of teaching their children to be independent from a young age. This year, families have spent more time at home than ever before, which provides the perfect opportunity to encourage kids to help out in the kitchen and raise adults who can cook.
As Wendy Mogul in her book ‘The Blessing of a Skinned Knee’ quotes from 2 psychologists “Humans are the only creatures that devote energy to making their offspring happy. The rest of the animal kingdom is devoted to fostering competence to survive in the world.”
Activities like cooking are not extra-curricular activities – they are the basics.
It’s ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ and in lockdown, we are spending a lot of time thinking about food (at least I am) since we have to constantly provide it for our families. So I asked our expert speaker on nutrition, Tracey Bennett to explain how what we eat impacts on our mental health………
Nutrition has been sorely neglected as a factor in the development of mental health. The brain like any other organ needs the right balance of nutrients in order to function properly. A 30% rise in teenage depression over the last decade has been linked to too much salt from fast food and not enough potassium from fruit and vegetables.
The problem is that fast food tastes good and that combination of sugar and fat is highly addictive. That temporary high is quickly followed by an energy slump which leaves you wanting more. The more that you eat it the more you need to get the same amount of pleasure. Additionally, too much sugar has been linked to reducing the protein (BDNF) which has been associated with increased anxiety.
These foods kill the healthy bacteria in your gut which is thought to play a really important role in your mental health; serotonin which helps to regulate sleep, appetite and mood is largely produced in the gut.
Any processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar have a similar effect on your gut bacteria as well as artificial sweeteners found in so many so called ‘healthy’ foods.
A poor diet can lead to a range of nutritional deficiencies that can affect your well-being. A recent study in the UK showed that 92% of teenagers and 77% of adults were most at risk of an Omega 3 deficiency. This essential fatty acid, found primarily in oily fish, has a protective effect against depression, concentration and memory problems.
It is not easy to ensure that you get the right balance of nutrients and often the problem can be what we eat between meals. Not buying those unhealthy snacks that are difficult to ration is probably the best option as it can take up to a month to re-educate your taste buds.
Try replacing them with healthy snacks that not only reduce stress but increase well-being:
- Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc which aids depression, magnesium to reduce stress and helps to create serotonin.
- Blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and packed with vitamin C which helps to relieve stress.
- Try putting your blueberries in a natural yogurt. They build up your healthy bacteria and have been found to have a positive effect on brain health. A study found that not only do yoghurts reduce social anxiety in some teenagers but they also increase happiness.
- Natural popcorn is a tasty source of whole grains that is high in fibre which helps to relieve stress and anxiety.
- Avocadoes contain choline which gives you a double boost of serotonin and dopamine.
- Walnuts have countless benefits such as improving mood, regulating the appetite and boosting brain function.
- When you do fancy something sweet, dark chocolate is rich in magnesium. Dipping fruit such as bananas or strawberries in melted dark chocolate will help to reduce stress.
Undoubtedly, what we eat affects how we feel and a healthy balanced diet can be a powerful aid for people dealing with depression and anxiety. But the converse is also true as our emotions can dictate what we eat. For many of us there is an internal struggle between the healthy foods that we know we should be eating and those tempting foods that we would like to be eating. When we are feeling low, or stressed or bored we can often turn to food for a bit of a boost. This kind of emotional overeating can also take a toll on our mental health as it doesn’t give us the comfort that we need and we end up feeling even worse. Left untreated, emotional eating can lead to weight gain, low self-esteem and eating disorders.
Ways of Overcoming Emotional Eating and Improving Mental Health
- Talk about your feelings:
With a friend or family member, or if you prefer write them down. Emotional eating is often a distraction to stop you thinking unpleasant thoughts but you end up swallowing your feelings rather than dealing with them.
- Keep a mood diary:
This will help to identify any kind of emotional eating and will give you an opportunity to develop some strategies for dealing with it. For example, if stress is your trigger have some activities in mind for when this might happen such as engaging in meditation and other relaxation techniques.
- Get Moving:
Exercise boosts our endorphins and makes us feel good. It also reduces the stress hormone cortisol leading to a reduction in depression, anxiety and insomnia.
- Limit your exposure to social media:
Social media can distort your attitude to body image and make you feel bad about yourself and much more likely to comfort eat.
- Use affirmations:
Every time you have a negative thought about yourself, try using simple affirmations to encourage yourself such as ‘it is the inner person that counts’ or ‘I can do anything’. They have been shown to positively rewire the brain and enhance your mood.
- Help others:
Doing something for someone else will definitely help you to feel better about yourself.
Using these strategies alongside a healthy balanced diet is not necessarily a panacea for all types of mental health issues as your first step may be getting help from a doctor. Nevertheless, in conjunction with any other medical advice, they will help to boost the improvements.
Of course we serve as essential role models for our children, so they will be influenced by how we eat.
Tracey Bennett delivers a very popular session on Healthy Eating Matters: How to instil healthy eating habits in our children.
Please get in touch for further details.
How to reduce the chance of children developing eating disorders
The very word ‘eating disorder’ is enough to strike fear in most parents. Latest estimates suggest that 1.25 million people have an eating disorder and that adolescence is the most likely time for this to develop.
At the heart of all eating disorders is an unhealthy attitude to food. The most common eating disorders are:
- Anorexia Nervosa – characterised by not eating enough and often excessive exercising
- Bulimia Nervosa – overeating followed by vomiting and laxatives in order not to gain weight
- Binge Eating Disorder – compulsive overeating that feels out of control
There are varying degrees of gravity for all of these and it is not always easy to determine when your child ‘tips over’ from healthy eating to problem eating, and then into a full- blown eating disorder. The bottom line is, if you feel that food is dominating your child’s life, your best action is to seek treatment, as early intervention gives the best chance of recovery.
Why does someone get an eating disorder?
There is no one over-riding cause to why someone develops an eating disorder; there is a combination of influences such as genetics, family experiences and culture. Parents don’t give their children an eating disorder, but there is much they can do to help reduce the chances of their children developing one.
What can parents do?
Parents’ main role is to create a positive home environment by:
- Setting the right goals – ensure that the aspirations that you have for your child are not based on appearance and that you do not give the impression that you will love them more if ‘only they ate less’. This includes paying more attention to what they say and do rather than what they look like.
- Speaking your mind – we are all exposed to some pretty toxic ideas about body image. This particularly applies to social media which bombards us with images that can distort our children’s attitude to body size. We need to educate our children that there is no such thing as the perfect body and that prejudice against people who are overweight is wrong. Too much time spent trying to achieve unattainable beauty is only going to lead to feelings of failure and is limiting your child’s development in more meaningful areas. Recent research showed that an intervention for women with eating disorders, that encouraged them to criticise negative media images that associated appearance with self-worth, significantly reduced their negative feelings about themselves.
- Being comfortable with your own body shape – the more complete you are as parents with your own body, irrespective of size – the less likely you are to imply that having a less than ideal body shape is something to feel ashamed about.
- Talking about feelings – eating disorders are a way of coping with difficult feelings, so encourage children to understand and express their emotions rather than placate them with food. This will give you an opportunity to teach them strategies to use when they are feeling frustrated, angry or sad. For example, taking a deep breath, talking the issue through with an adult, or even asking for a hug.
- Being a good role model – you are their biggest influence. If you pick at your food, criticise your own body and are constantly on a diet, your children will copy these unhelpful behaviours.
- Not putting them on a diet – dieting rarely works and often affects self-esteem. Most eating disorders start with a diet. There can also be loads of other health implications such as stunted growth, osteoporosis and delayed puberty.
- Keeping children a healthy weight – overweight teenagers have a much higher risk of developing an eating disorder, but often its symptoms go unnoticed because they are masked by being overweight.
- Exercising for the right reasons – exercise is an important part of good health, but if you are spending hours in the gym each day trying to get the ‘perfect’ body then this will give children the wrong messages.
- Boosting their self-esteem – this is probably the most important factor that protects children from developing an eating disorder. One of the best ways to do this is by offering children choices, particularly as eating disorders often develop as a way of trying to take control of their lives. Try offering them an array of healthy foods and let them serve themselves. Even better get them involved in cooking healthy food.
Not only will these behaviours help to reduce the chances of your children developing an eating disorder but they are also great ways for maintaining a healthy attitude to weight and food for all the family.
Article by Tracey Bennett, specialist in Obesity & Weight Management
Every term I run a 10 week parenting course for a small group of parents. In recent weeks, the topic of mealtimes has come up a lot so I thought this would be a good one to address in my blog. Parents often mention issues such as the fact that their child either eats painfully slowly or too fast, has a very limited diet and won’t try new foods or won’t eat independently. They feel caught between not wanting to make a big deal or draw attention to eating habits but also worrying that their child maybe won’t put on weight, will put on too much weight or may wake up hungry in the night if they don’t give alternative options.
The child’s school and education will also play a role here, where children learn from teachers how to eat properly with a knife and fork, take their plates and respect their food.
Here are my top tips to encourage good eating habits for children.
Some top tips
1. Only offer healthy foods. The parent chooses what the child eats but the child chooses how much.
2. Don’t make a big issue about food or fight over it. They may eat more one day and less the next. Focus and comment on the positives, not what they are doing wrong.
3. Repeatedly serve tiny amounts and a variety of food they don’t like, such as vegetables. Just leave a tiny bit on their plate. Children eat what is served in their house. Accept that a food may need to be introduced numerous times before they are willing to try it.
4. Don’t reward a child for eating something they don’t like with a treat after such as desert or ice cream. This may reinforce the idea that desert is good and fish is bad.
5. Involve children in preparing food as much as possible. Cook together, look at recipes etc.
6. Go out to buy food together, particularly the greengrocer or pick your own. Plant a vegetable garden. Involve them in writing a shopping list, even if only mark making.
7. Share family meals together as often as possible and serve everyone the same food.
8. Role play restaurants and serving in a supermarket or play the tasting game.
9. Never force a child to eat a food or insist on ‘one bite’ – this causes power struggles. Stay neutral.
10. Hide fruit and vegetables in pasta sauces, smoothies, muffins etc
11. Think about your eating habits – you serve as a role model. Don’t talk about dieting or good and bad foods. Just try to model eating a healthy, balanced diet.
12. Most toddlers don’t like their food to touch. Serve it in a muffin tin or make food patterns
13. Sit down with your child and if they are old enough to understand, establish together some clear rules about mealtimes. Write these down, framed in the positive and refer to them before the meal until they become more of a habit. Make sure you use the rules to address the difficult issues such as taking time too long to eat, trying something new, staying at the table etc.