Kids are counting calories before they even know what a calorie is. Most kids who develop eating disorders or start diets usually do so between the ages of 11 and 14, though dieting younger is not unheard. Although there is no single cause, how and when parents react to food, and their own behaviors, can set up a lot of the environment surrounding how a child develops their own relationship to food.
A recent study was published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics detailing ways to help your kid eat healthy without shaming their body or weight. In the study, they showed that connecting food to “fatness” or being overweight could actually backfire and encourage unhealthy eating habits.
Karen Kataline, author of Fatlash: Food Police & the Fear of Thin, for example, was restricted to just 500 calories a day as a child. Six-to-seven year old children should be eating 1,400 to 1,800 calories a day. At dinner, she remembers not being served the same foods as her parents and brother. She remembers being hungry all of the time.
In the 1960s, Kataline was a toddler beauty queen and performer at three years old.
“My mother wanted me to be a star, and she was obsessed with my weight and appearance. She wanted me to be thin.’’
JAMA study lead author Dr. Jerica Berge advised parents should focus more on the ways that eating right can help children become healthy and strong.
“Don’t connect these conversations to weight and size,” she said. Connecting food to weight can backfire, and backfire intensely.
Kataline knows this all too well. As a child she learned that she could “win” by eating as much food as she could sneak without getting caught, and usually sought out foods that were denied her, from gravy to chocolate bars.
“When parents. or some government agency or official, make food choices for individuals, it sets people up to develop eating disorders,” says Kataline, who is now a mental health therapist with a master’s degree in social work. “Many times, a child wouldn’t have a weight problem at all if his or her parent weren’t superimposing their own fear and anxiety about it onto the child.”
Likewise, Kataline is troubled by increasing efforts to legislate food choices for adults, from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban super-sized sugary drinks to Los Angeles City Council’s prohibition against fast-food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods. Even on a societal level, fat-shaming has never “worked” (but that’s a story for another day).
“The attempt to control a choice as personal and critical to our survival as what we put in our mouths creates serious consequences, whether the control is imposed by an overzealous parent or an army of food police,” she says. She said that legislative attempts to force people to eat in a certain way could have similar backlashes that a child would have with their parent—that it could spark a mentality of depression and cause people to seek out the “banned” foods even more.
The JAMA study showed that conversations about food that focused on a supposed need to lose weight were linked to higher incidences of dieting and other unhealthy eating behaviors, including anorexia, binge eating or bulimia, among adolescents.
On that note, parents who talked about healthy eating and living without a focus on weight were less likely to have children who engaged in these behaviors.
The benefits of this approach were seen in both overweight and normal weight teens, the study showed.
Kataline offers these suggestions for families who want their children to have a healthy relationship with food – and with themselves.
- Teach children “body integrity” – that they have autonomy over their own body. Ultimately, each of us is responsible for the choices we make, and that includes the choices involving our bodies, Kataline says. Teach children to recognize the differences between healthy and unhealthy choices, and encourage healthy choices. The JAMA study recommends not connecting health food to weight or size, but to becoming strong and healthy. “Children will learn to moderate their eating habits when they are in touch with their own hunger signals,” she says. “When someone else takes responsibility for that, they lose touch with it.”
- Set boundaries and respect them. It’s normal for parents to revel in their child’s accomplishments. But there’s a problem when they desperately need their child to look a certain way, or excel in a particular area, Kataline says. They are imposing their own issues and arrested development on their child — she calls it “Princess by Proxy.” Living through their child and having their child’s appearance and accomplishments feed their own need for attention and recognition, or their own political agenda, makes the child a proxy for the adult’s agenda and can result in mental and emotional damage to the kid. “Parents need to work out these issues for themselves, or with the help of a therapist, and establish boundaries that respect the child’s autonomy,” Kataline says.
- If your child is making a lot of unhealthy food choices, encourage her to “check in with herself” to identify the cause. “Sometimes the body says what the mouth cannot,” Kataline says. Significant weight gain or loss can be a child’s body armor, protecting her from something that feels painful but she’s unable to articulate. As a young performer and pageant star, Kataline says she was sexualized at a very early age – given a sexual persona through hair styles, makeup, costumes and even dance moves. Adults’ response made her feel vulnerable. The overeating that began as a way to beat her mother’s strict dietary rules eventually became a way to protect herself from the looks that made her uncomfortable.
Elle Groves is a freelance reporter, writer and blogger bent on deconstructing diet culture and keeping her life full of food, fitness, family and friends. She is currently writing a novel that spans the rise and fall of a girl’s struggle with eating disorders and her DIY-recovery. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ellegrows.