‘Pay attention to diet culture and encourage children to question it’

Parents can shape the way kids think about food and their bodies — but they can also break the negative cycle, says dietitian, Harriette Lynch. By Denise Smith
You can protect your child from diet culture so they can have a positive body image

You can protect your child from diet culture so they can have a positive body image

How many times have you resolved to start on Monday or vowed to never eat a carb again? We are all entrenched in diet culture, but it isn’t just the multi-billion weight loss industry that is listening, it’s our kids too.

We are bombarded with pervasive and constant messaging from the media and sometimes even medical professionals that equate thinness to health, happiness and success.

Creating positive self-image in children and breaking the cycle of diet culture can seem impossible at times.

If you want to set your child on the path towards body confidence Harriette Lynch, Consultant Dietitian from healthpro.ie offers the following advice.

‘Oh my god I have eaten so much now I need to walk that off,’ or ‘It is Monday and I am going to start today.’

“These are day-to-day conversations or sentences, and we use them all the time without even noticing it and little ears are listening.

“Watching our language and becoming aware of our language is key. But it is vital that we don’t look for blame in that, instead it is important to really become aware of our language so we can start the cycle of change.

“Calorie counting started back in the 1920s and102 years on and we are still doing the same thing expecting the same results. That speaks volumes. There is no blame here. This person has this language because of generations and generations of it developing.

“We are fixated on weight from the medical field all through society. What we do know is that weight does not determine your health. It is our behaviours; sleep and how we nourish our bodies and how we live in our bodies and how we see ourselves.

Encouraging children to have a positive relationship with their body and food, the expert offers up the following guidelines.

Pay attention

“Pay attention to diet culture and encourage children to question it. Say they came home and say sweets are bad for us. I would ask them to be curious about that and ask them, ‘why do you say that? How do you feel when you eat sweets?

“Ask them, ‘if you ate a lot of that food like any other food, how would that make you feel?

“Be natural about the conversation. If they are bringing home things with labels, ie some foods are good or bad, it could be another child in the classroom, not a teacher discussing this, it could even be a child commenting on their lunches.

“Remind children that there is no such thing as good or bad foods, there are foods that we need a little bit more in our lives and food that we need a little bit less but there is nothing bad about any food.”

Avoid pressure

It’s also important to avoid pressuring kids to eat certain foods.

“Allow them to guide their bodies. This might feel really uncomfortable for parents, but it will feel great for kids. Pressurising them to eat more or less can significantly increase their level of meal-time worries

“If we are judgemental at the kitchen table then our children become much more cautious eaters and it becomes more unpleasant for them.

“I also encourage families to sit down together at least once a day and talk about what happened in school to holiday plans, even play a few games. I find wild life cards are great to spark conversation - you are not focusing on the food and are instead enjoying time together.

“Offer variety at the table within a person’s budget allowing your child to try new things.

“If they don’t like something remind them that it is not for them ‘yet,’ the word ‘yet’ is very powerful because it means they are still open to it but it’s not for them today.”

Talk positive

Checking in with your own relationship with your body is paramount.

“It is not enough for us to just stop talking about how unsatisfied we are with our bodies, what we need people to do is talk about how amazing their body is. How great our legs are, how great our torso is, our thighs and tummy and how great our minds are.

“We really have to practice this because it is not a typical conversation and I think it was last year my five-year-old was looking down at her legs and I said, ‘are you okay?’

“And she said, ‘you know what mummy I just love my legs.’

“Internally I was doing a little dance and I said, ‘yes, they are really helpful, aren’t they?’ And she said, ‘Yes mummy I get up to so many adventures with my legs.

“It is our language all the time that impacts the children, that is what they are listening to and that is how they will develop their language all the way through into adulthood and it marks them for life.

“It is not enough not to speak negatively about our bodies, we have to champion our own bodies and allow your children to know how much you do love your own body.

“How we compliment people is also huge. You could be out with your kids and say to someone, ‘you have lost loads of weight, you look great.’

That is a massive red flag. Stop commenting on peoples’ bodies.

“There are brilliant books out there at the moment that explain to kids that not everyone has to be the same shape or size. Emer O’Neill is Irish/Nigerian and a Bray, Co. Wicklow native and her book, The Same but Different is brilliant.

“The real emphasis is that we are all human but we are all different, there is not one person that is the same, so why are we making people conform to be the same.”

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