The Tightrope of Healthy Eating Habits


healthy eating habits

Have you ever felt like you couldn’t catch a break, no matter how hard you tried? That’s how my friend Laura feels. Since preschool, her daughter had a tendency toward being overweight. Because she wanted Anna to be healthy and happy, Laura was intentional about encouraging healthy eating habits—not overly restrictive, just healthy–and promoted active play in their home. Through the preschool and grammar school years, the excess pounds didn’t budge. Anna was self-conscious about her weight, yet loved to snack on calorie-dense foods. Then suddenly, it was as if the child began to melt before her mother’s very eyes.

In the middle of the 5th grade, Anna began to tightly control every bite that went in her mouth. She insisted on preparing many of her own meals according to “light” recipes and counted every calorie. At first, Laura was relieved to see her daughter take personal responsibility for her health and exercise some self-discipline with food choices. But soon the ideal weight for a girl of her age and height passed by and she began to look gaunt, tired, and have dark circles under her eyes. They had shifted from one extreme to the other: Anna had an eating disorder.

Moms of tweens and teens—often girls—are walking a tightrope on this issue every day. How do we protect our children from the national epidemic of childhood obesity without letting our psychologically vulnerable tween girls fall victim to disordered eating? For that matter, how do we protect ourselves from the same trap? Learn how to find the healthy middle ground on the food tight rope for your family.

1. It all starts with you, Mom.

It hurts me to type these words because I know that in my household, I’m guilty of problematic talk and attitudes about body image and food. I ridicule my own physique when it’s not just as I’d like it to be. I make too much of certain food choices and over talk the pros and cons of eating this vs. that. Media culture impacts our kids’ thinking on these issues, but we do, too. My day-in, day-out commentary about my body and food should have the following themes:

  • my dress size and my self-worth have nothing to do with one another
  • all things in moderation
  • self-acceptance
  • I eat well for good health, not just to achieve a certain outward appearance

2. We must understand that our vulnerability to eating disorders is about much more than food. {Tweet This}

There are a variety of psychological, social and even biological factors that can contribute to the onset of disordered eating. Kids with low self-esteem, depression, stress, anxiety or troubled relationships tend to be more vulnerable. Another factor can be a very narrow idea of beauty which includes only people with very specific weights and shapes. Scientists are still researching the possible biochemical links, but there may be a connection between imbalance in the brain chemicals that control hunger and appetite and a greater risk for disorders. In other words, if your child already struggles on one of these fronts, keep a close eye on her nutrition and overall health.

3. Where food is concerned, attitude is everything.

It’s important to resist demonizing food, even when we’re trying to make better choices. It’s not like an addiction to drugs or alcohol, wherein totally abstaining is a reasonable solution. We have to eat. Every day. For our entire lives. It’s all about teaching ourselves and our children to aim for a balanced mix of healthy foods and treats, exercise and rest. When we make food—something we need to survive—the enemy, we create a psychological stage for trouble. Our food talk should place as much emphasis on consuming the right foods as it does on restricting the lesser foods.

4. Parents must be aware that obesity and eating disorders can be close cousins.

While the reasons are still under investigation, kids who struggle with obesity seem to have an increased vulnerability to disordered eating once they begin a food-restricted lifestyle. This seemed to be the slippery slope my friend’s daughter fell down. Once the child begins to restrict and tightly control food intake to achieve weight loss, it can quickly become a runaway train. If your child needs to lose weight, make sure it’s done slowly and as naturally as possible, and pay close attention to attitudes as much as the scale. The eating disorder battle is won or lost in the mind.

5. Recovery is possible.

The good news? Anna, with the help of her parents and a counselor, has adjusted her thinking and relationship to food and is once again at a healthy weight. Her vibrant, fun-loving personality—which all but disappeared during her underweight season—is back.  Parents can lessen the damaging effects of eating disorders and turn them around for our children, but we must be aware and proactive. When Laura and her husband recognized the problem, they acted quickly to seek help and get involved in her recovery. She says the recovery process was stressful for the whole family, but they’re incredibly grateful for the improvement in Anna’s physical and psychological health. They still keep a close eye on her thinking and food habits, but they’re better equipped to steer her toward a healthy middle ground with all they’ve learned from professionals.

Let’s Talk: Do you find it difficult to help your kids – especially your daughters – to have a healthy, balanced relationship with food and exercise?

Comments