|With a slight tap of the keyboard, that which harms us looks shiny and bright.|
As the new year looms over the horizon, many of us turn to a renewed focus on our physical wellbeing, especially though diet and exercise. And with that focus comes the dizzying array of new diets, new MLM supplements, new exercise commitments, and new minimalism protocols in your home. I want to urge you to make a radically different change this time around. This year, instead of once again embarking on the process of purging, eliminating, restricting, and removing... consider switching to an abundance script that focuses on mindfulness and acceptance.
We all know that eating disorders are steadily increasing, even cropping up in males and in young children. Not only is the incidence increasing, but the variety is, too. Professionals want to add specific forms of eating disorders to the list, including one that involves natural living and one that involves children.
Besides concerns about eating disorders, parents also have valid concerns about childhood obesity and poor food quality in our country. Parents typically respond to their fears about obesity and food quality by policing a child's eating habits. This makes sense, since most parents also attempt to restrict and police themselves on their own diets. The language is negative, what I call restrictive. Stop for a moment here and think about it, and you will see what I mean.
We call some food junk. We constantly look for the "bad" ingredients but don't spend as much time looking for the "good" ingredients. We focus on fear, anxiety, purging, cutting, depriving, eliminating, and eradicating when it comes to food. Our exercise is supposed to be grueling, confusing to the body, painful, and routine. We talk about ways to keep pushing when we don't want to do it anymore, instead of asking why our bodies and minds are protesting. All of these restrictions end up bleeding into our family environment, developing what I call a Culture of Scarcity.
This Culture of Scarcity doesn't have good outcomes. Scientists have researched the various ways that parents teach children about food, about eating, about body image, and about physical activity. And the evidence shows over and over again that behaviors such as food policing, food restricting, forced exercise, and food judgment are harmful. Not only are they harmful, but they actually cause the child to eat more of the condemned foods, even resorting to lying and stealing.
To put that another way, when a parent attempts to govern a child's eating, place judgment on food decisions, push exercise, and focus on body image even out of health concerns, it results in the child sneaking and lying to get around the parent, showing more interest in the forbidden foods, and showing increased negative awareness of body image issues.
For the sake of our children's health and wellbeing, it's time to step off the purge train, walk away from the judgment, and say goodbye to policing. This might sound extreme, even absurd, until you look closely at the medical literature to see that parental behaviors have serious outcomes when authoritarian parenting is mixed with food and love. As Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, founder of the family nutrition blog Raise Healthy Eaters says, "Restriction is the feeding practice most associated with higher weights in children."
This is found quickly in the medical literature. For example, a study published in the Journal of American Dietetic Association studied girls ages 4-6 years old, looking at their self-evaluation and how it was associated with parental food policing. These researchers confirmed that when parents restricted certain foods, the young girls were more likely to eat those foods when given the free choice to do so, even when not hungry. At the same time, this increased negative self-evaluation in the children. In other words, starting at a very young age, children who were food policed showed more attraction to the prohibited foods, ignored hunger cues, and internalized shame. This is extremely distressing research!
Researchers confirmed the same outcome in several of their studies that focus on young children, parental restriction, and snacking. In one study, scientists conclude, "Results confirm that the use of restriction does not reduce children’s consumption of these foods, particularly among children with lower regulatory or higher appetitive tendencies." This one is really worth paying attention to because it is a common parenting mistake to think that if a child is failing more in one area, it requires even more parental judgment and policing. Yet, this study shows us that a child who has trouble regulating intake combined with strong authoritative parenting turns out to be the perfect storm that causes the most damage out of all the parenting methods observed in the studies.
The damage of that parenting mistake is seen again in this study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Scientists found that not only does restrictive parenting lead to the children eating more of the restricted foods, it also is associated with heavier weight later down the road. They call it EAH: Eating in the absence of hunger. When they studied these young girls at age 5, 7, and 9 years old, they found that girls at age 5 who had mothers with the most restricted eating methods also had the highest EAH levels at age 9 and were more likely to be overweight.
This internal tension is a common downside noted in debates about parenting methods in general. When children have less self-control and are still developing impulse control, such as young kids ages 4-6 years old, they have the cognitive ability to recognize parental judgment and parental expectations, but they might not be able to make reasonable decisions within a severely restricted environment, resulting in a feeling of shame and even self-loathing. Parenting gurus call it setting the child up to fail. And when it comes to food, it also means associating negative scripts with food. A child's sense of being loved, being approved of, being accepted, and even the child's entire self image might become firmly attached to non-verbal beliefs about how and what to eat.
In addition to the tension created by restrictive and authoritarian parenting, another issue is that of modeling. When parents model certain scripts and behaviors surrounding food, they are passing on an actual food culture. This food culture is implicitly taught, meaning it is non-verbally absorbed by the child simply through living it out in the home. When it comes to serious situations such as a parent suffering from orthorexia, this means children are learning to exhibit an eating disorder with facets of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety. Researchers discovered that, "...children are picking up orthorexic tendencies from their parents. Kids who watch their parents becoming obsessed with certain food types may mimic that behavior."
These life long scripts tend to stay with the child into adulthood under the binge-purge cycle. Some call it yo-yo dieting. Others call it hoarding and then spring cleaning. Soon enough, these adults with their binge-purge cycle have children and then the cycle begins again.
It's clear that while parents need to educate their children about the numerous issues in our food industry, we also need to provide a mindful, uplifting environment so that the child feels empowered instead of anxious or ashamed. Scaring the child, restricting and policing, exhibiting obsession and judgment, and modeling disordered eating patterns provides the child with a damaging foundation for life.
So this new year, as you begin to watch the trees awaken and the days become warmer, make a new commitment. Instead of focusing yet again on a new purge, reach outside of this cycle. Give yourself permission to let go of the old patterns focused on restricting, denying, judging, purging, eliminating and suffering. Consciously move to an abundance script, where you encourage your children to be mindful of their eating and to feel a sense of abundance and nourishment instead of a sense of scavenging and scarcity. Mindfulness here is about focusing on what is, without judging it or condemning it. When we do this slowly and calmly with young children over food choices, we often find more information.
A child who is constantly asking for sugar might need more calorie-dense and carb heavy foods for a brain that is going through a growth spurt. A child who refuses to eat vegetables might need more fatty foods, or have an aversion to goitrogenic vegetables due to an underlying thyroid condition. Numerous vitamin deficiencies and mineral imbalances present with food aversions or reduced appetite and could indicate a need for testing and treatment. Exposure to heavy metals such as lead and arsenic disrupt methylation, cause stomach pain, and reduce appetite. Once you let go of the policing, you begin to unearth the real issues and find ways to resolve them.
Slowing down to be mindful gives us a better picture. Instead of rushing to judgment, which causes us to respond with parental policing, we can sit back to assess and to try to find out what is happening under the surface. It doesn't mean all things are equal. It doesn't mean junk food suddenly is the same as good food. What it means is that we can show our children a path to health and happiness without overly focusing on the negative. If your child likes a particular snack, find out why. Find out what healthy product exists that is similar. Brainstorm ways to emphasize wellbeing and abundance without ripping things away. This can also provide parents with more solutions. Something as simple as providing more macronutrients or different food groups might bring a child out of a rut. Or, it might show us that a valid medical condition exists beyond the child's control, that can now be identified and treated instead of the child growing up to think it was an inherent defect of her personality.
Let's leave the Culture of Scarcity and walk confidently towards the Culture of Abundance. Choose today to break the cycle. For your children. And for you.
The Center for Mindful Eating website: [http://thecenterformindfuleating.org/]
1. Birch LL, Fisher JO. Parents' restrictive feeding practices are associated with young girls' negative self-evaluation of eating. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008; 100(11): 1341-1346. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2548290/]
2. Rollins BY, Loken E. Effects of restriction on children's intake differ by child temperament, food reinforcement, and parents' chronic use of restriction. Appetite. 2014; 73: 31-9. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24511616]