This one’s hard you guys. There are so many factors at play here and so many ways to parent. We’re all doing the best we can and I just want you to know I am on your team.
To start this post today I’m sharing some startling statistics that show WHY this conversation is even important in the first place.
•80% of 10 year olds have been on a diet.
•95% of diets fail and most regain all or MORE of the weight they lost.
•75% of females endorsed unhealthy thoughts or behaviors around food.
•35% of occasional dieters progress into diagnosed disordered eating.
•40% of newly diagnosed anorexia cases are girls between the ages of 15-19.
•A child is 242x more likely to develop an eating disorder than Type II Diabetes.
• For females between 15 – 24 who suffer from anorexia, the mortality rate associated with the illness is 12x higher than the death rate of ALL other causes of death.
Now I’m asking you to think about where children and teens get the idea that the restriction of certain foods is a necessary tool for health. Of course from the media, school conversations and general diet culture influences, but have you considered the message you’re sending at home? I’m asking you today to think about it in the context of your sugar “policy”. In our house, and because of these statistics, our main goal in raising our children to be healthy is to help them develop a positive relationship with food and a positive body image. We cannot protect our children from being exposed to diet culture or certain foods (unless they’re allergic or have serious health conditions, of course). What we can do is help equip them with the tools of resilience from these startling statistics and the inevitable exposure to what we’re trying to protect them from (cough, cough, sugar). This starts with empowering them to readily hear their body’s signals and act on them in a way that is positive and healthy. To let them know that they can assert autonomy over their decisions without falling into restrictive/controlling behavior. To teach them to trust themselves and all food. When we overly control their food choices, we’re removing valuable learning opportunities that happen daily and add up to a strong, healthy relationship for life. These lessons must be learned, and the longer you shelter your child from making them on their own, the more opportunities diet culture has to beat them to it. You can, however, still influence a healthy diet by encouraging conversations around food and creating valuable food rituals within your home and family.
The biggest hang-up I’ve seen for parents to really absorb this information is the response they may have already witness from their child when they are exposed to sugar after a restricted period. It’s hard and very scary to see that happen and then trust that it’s not a problem food. You’re witnessing a pretty intense response, after all! Just remember, we are designed to prefer highly palatable foods to insure we are getting enough calories for energy. The more we can normalize these foods, the less “feast or famine” it will become to you and your child’s mind and palate, the more trust around these foods always being an option will build, and the less “special” or binge-worthy they will become. This creates food neutrality which allows for balanced decisions to be made! It may sound scary and absurd after years of being told differently, but I encourage you to give it a try and see for yourself.
Parents who are concerned about their child's diet may attempt to limit what and how much food is eaten, pressure their child to eat a healthier diet, or reward their child for eating healthy foods, practices which may all lead to unintended consequences.27,37,38 Excessive restriction of children's access to, and intake of, highly palatable foods can promote increased preference for, and over consumption of, those restricted foods when they are readily available.37,38 Highly restricted children have poorer self regulation of energy intake, which is associated with greater weight gain across childhood.27,37,38 Similarly, research indicates that encouraging or pressuring children to consume more fruits and vegetables is associated with lower fruit and vegetable intakes39, and higher intakes of dietary fat.40 In addition, using food as a reward may also have inadvertent effects in that rewarding children for consuming healthy foods actually results in decreased preference for those foods.41 These findings indicate that, regardless of parents' rationale for controlling their child's eating behaviours, excessive control may have negative impacts on child food intake and weight status.
A few tips to get your started:
-Exposure. It may take repeat exposures before your child fully trusts that these options will forever be available after being restricted, so you may see the extreme behavior continue for a little while. Be patient!
-Create diversity on the plate. Introduce these foods with a wide variety of options across flavor profiles. The child will naturally graze and land on the food most satisfying to them in that moment. Try to sit back and watch without prompting the child on what to select, and avoid serving them yourself.
-Normalize it. Put the food you’re introducing on the dinner table with all the other sides being served. Don’t make a big fuss about it, or call any particular attention to it. Keep language neutral. Over time you can remove it from the dinner table and have a more normal relationship with these foods.
-Set boundaries. It’s up to your to create your food culture and what options you bring into the home. One piece that really gets lost in translation here is that we are not suggesting sugar or highly processed foods be served at every single meal. We don’t expect you to go and stock your pantry with every item from the grocery store for the sake of “exposure”. You as the parent are in charge of what offerings your child gets, including a wide variety of foods - including fruits/vegetables/complex carbohydrates/various protein sources/etc. If your child asks for a cookie at breakfast an appropriate response could be, “we are having x for breakfast today to make sure we have lots of energy to learn and play, but maybe we can have a cookie later in the day.” Or if the child comes home and says, “Timmy’s family has ‘x’ food, why don’t we have that in our house?”, a response could be, “some families eat ‘x’ foods, some families eat ‘y’ foods, why do you ask?” and listen to what the child has interpreted from that experience.
And remember, you’re already doing a great job!!! Don’t stress too much either way about this and let your child and your intuition guide you as you navigate.
— I’m sharing a real life anecdote to why allowing your child to eat sugar intuitively may surprise you over on my Instagram homepage under Sugar + Kids in my highlighted videos.
— If you are nervous about the “addictive” qualities sugar may have on your children, I’d really like you to read this peer reviewed article. It tells us that the addiction we hear about actually comes from the deprivation of a food group that is readily available in our culture (think feast or famine, as sugar inevitably works its way into your child’s life).
— If you’re confused about how to integrate Intuitive Eating into your family culture, please check out my 10 Principles for Raising Food & Body Confident Children. In the meantime, I encourage you to explore my resource page.