Putting an End to Confusion
about Healthy Eating
By Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP
Bombarded by news of ever-changing fad diets and conflicting messages in the
media about how to stay physically fit and live longer, parents are confused
about what healthy eating is, and what it isn’t. Because parents exert so
great an influence in shaping their child’s attitudes towards food, it
stands to reason that many kids are similarly confused and misinformed,
struggling to eat and manage their weight healthfully. Six million kids are
obese in America today. Pro-anorexic web sites have proliferated in the face
of an enthusiastic population of young viewers seeking gimmicks for losing
weight and staying thin, even if it means becoming ill. Close to ninety
percent of the eleven million victims of eating disorders in our society
today are young people under the age of twenty.
Challenges for parents
Many parents assume that fat-free eating is healthy eating, that
skipping meals is a short cut to becoming trim. These assumptions are
Some parents do not realize that eating or exercise regimes that work
well for parents, when taken out of the context of age and health
requirements, do not necessarily apply to children; in fact they may be
harmful. As an example, children need fat in their diets to support a
maturing neurological system throughout the childhood, adolescent, and
young adult years. Some kinds of fats are healthier for the body than
others, but a fat free diet for a child can be damaging to his health.
Parents often believe that by communicating honestly with their children
about “uncomfortable” topics such as weight management, food, and
eating, they could create more problems than they solve, or even lose
their child’s love. As a result, they may be inclined to pretend not to
notice when their child is struggling with food. A problem cannot be
resolved unless and until it is identified and confronted.
Parents who confuse authoritative parenting with authoritarian parenting
need to reconsider their role, and fulfill their responsibility to,
their child; Children become emotionally resilient and secure through
authoritative parenting, where parents assert appropriate external
limits for the child until such time as the child is capable of assuming
limit-setting and self-controls under his or her own volition.
By imposing too many limits during the growing up years, authoritarian
parents deprive children of the opportunity to learn to regulate
themselves. The child who is confined by too many external limits grows
up to feel untrustworthy and helpless and may ultimately turn to an
eating disorder to establish a sense of power and identity.
Likewise, the child who enjoys too few external controls may feel out of
control, overwhelmed, and frightened by her own sense of indiscriminate
power; she may ultimately turn to an eating disorder to provide a sense
of containment and security.
Parents need to become informed
Parents need to learn what healthy eating is and to practice it,
modeling for their child a consistently healthy relationship with food.
Healthy eating is diversified, balanced eating, that takes the form of
at least three meals a day, each containing all of the food groups.
There are no bad foods; what is bad is extreme, and immoderate eating,
and/or inflexible attitudes towards food and weight management. Food is
not fattening, nor is it the “enemy.” Fat free eating and dieting are
not healthy eating lifestyles for children. Parents need to understand
that the body is not an object whose size and shape can be controlled or
predetermined by food consumption.
Parents need to understand that the body is a wise and reliable machine;
through efficient fueling and consistent care, the body can be counted
upon to remain healthy and fit, to function efficiently and effectively
from the inside out. For example, a female’s body cannot be healthy
unless it is menstruating.
Through listening, parents need to learn to “know” their child; through
listening, skillful parents can also help the child come to know herself
Parents must learn to assign significance to every comment a child
makes. If the child makes negative comments about her shape or size,
parents must not dismiss them, even if they seem irrational; rather,
parents should use these comments to enhance their connection with the
child. (The parent might consider asking the youngster what she assumes
would make her look better, why, and how she envisions trying to
accomplish her weight- or food- related goals.)
Parents need to become acutely aware of their own body image concerns
and attitudes that may inadvertently stimulate their child’s fears,
distortions and misconceptions. Parents must be careful not to be overly
self-critical, complaining about their own weight in front of their
Children need guidance. They need reality and truth, structure and limits,
for out of these constructs come freedom. Children need exposure to rational
decision-making and good values. They need to be educated. Children need
their parents. If what they need is not forthcoming from that source, they
will seek what they require from other influences, such as peers or the
media. Nature abhors a vacuum.