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How your relationship with food will affect your child

The emotional implications of dieting and using food as a reward.

No matter how young your children are, it’s never too early to make decisions on how you plan to manage their relationship with food. And it all starts with your own relationship with food.

Dieting is an important risk factor1 for developing an eating disorder in children. Studies have also shown that people’s weight would be healthier if they never ‘dieted’ in the first place.

Healthy eating is having nutritious food most of the time and eating less healthy food sometimes. The problem with a ‘diet’ is that it demands perfection, which is not necessary and never achievable, so it comes to a point where you are either on a diet and restricting a lot of the foods you love, or off the diet and eating without concern for your health. Neither is a good example for children.

When parents demonstrate that restricting food and being unhappy with their body is normal, children will quickly follow suit. 2013 research from Duke Medicine and the Duke Global Health Institute show kids whose mums encouraged them to exercise and eat well, and model those healthy behaviours themselves, are more likely to be active and healthy eaters. This is a reminder to parents that their children are watching and learning from their behaviours, both good and bad.

The difficulty is that a lot of parents think they are being healthy by going on a restrictive diet when they are really teaching their children how to restrict food in the short term and not be able to keep it up in the long term. A feast/famine relationship with food are then established as the norm.

Here are two things for parents to avoid in developing relationships with food for their children:

Using food as a reward or comfort

This habit stems back to childhood when a parent or significant other would provide a sweet treat for being good or to make you feel better. Children don’t need food for comfort. They need to be shown that a hug or talking about the problem is a more effective way of dealing with it. When it comes to using food to reward a child for good behaviour or withholding it as a punishment, it sends the subconscious message that certain types of food are linked with behaviour and emotions. Instead, try other rewards that are not related to food, like a trip somewhere special, a sheet of stickers, or asking a friend over for a sleepover or play date.

Insisting that children eat everything on their plates

So many of the adults I see have trouble leaving food on their plate, even when they are full, as a result of childhood memories such as ‘finish everything, there are starving children in the world,’ or ‘You are not leaving the table until you finish everything on your plate’. This can override your child’s natural hunger and fullness signals.

The role of a parent is certainly a bumpy ride and there isn’t a rulebook, so you tend to teach what you were taught. If you have an unhappy relationship with food and your body, it is important that you recognise this and find ways to help you to change this. Not only will you be healthier and happier, but your children will have a better chance of never getting on the diet bandwagon in the first place.

Having trouble getting your child to eat nutritious foods? Read our article on Healthy Food for Kids.

If you need some extra guidance or support, visit a nutritionist or dietitian to create a tailor-made eating plan for you. You can claim benefits towards a consultation with dietician as part of Medibank’s Growing Family Extras Cover.

1 Reas DL, Grilo CM. Timing and sequence of the onset of overweight, dieting, and binge eating in overweight patients with binge eating disorder. Int J Eat Disord 2007; 40:165.
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