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Four Tips to Help Your Kids Create a Healthy Body Image and Relationship With Food

Becca Clegg

Recently, I have had quite a few people inquire about how to talk to their children about weight loss or food without passing on negative body image messages.  People seem to be aware of the fact that this subject is a sensitive one (thank goodness) and are wanting sane and balanced ways to help their kids be healthy without losing themselves to the dieting trap in the process.

I really appreciate the fact that the question is even getting asked.  Studies are indicating more than ever that eating disorders and unhealthy dieting are on the rise.  Girls as young as seven are dieting. There are so many unhealthy standards and behaviors going on out there, someone has to begin to offer a new way of approaching this subject.

So I wanted to share these 4 question-and-answer segments with you.  The truth is, this advice is every bit as relevant to adults as it is to kids or teens.  The truth is the truth, regardless of your age. 

I hope it is helpful to you or someone in your life that is seeking balance and a healthy relationship with food.

1.  What advice do you have for children and teens to help them find a healthy weight?

Your body is designed to maintain it's perfect weight.  Dieting actually causes that function to malfunction.  

Pay attention to your body.  Learn when you are hungry and when you are full. These are simple, but often forgotten signals the body sends that tells us how IT wants to eat.  

Eat a balance of foods, including your favorite "treats" in moderation.  Any diet that excludes the food you love won't last; your mind will begin to sense deprivation, and sensing that as a threat, it will fight against you.  This is what causes yo-yo dieting and binge eating.  

Focus on moderate portions (eat until you are full and stop); be active (as it’s great for your health and also helps you maintain your weight) and lastly, but most importantly, understand that the societal image of "thin" isn't what 99% of people's bodies are designed to look like.  

Obviously, you may want to use different language to explain this to kids, but the core premise is the same.  When we eat foods that feed our body, our body sends up signals that tell us what we need and want.  This is not something I was ever taught…I doubt many of us were.  I think that teaching kids about nutrition in an objective and fun way early on can change the way we look at food.  It was meant to be enjoyed…it’s part of our biological makeup.

Eating to be "skinny" will lead to dieting and unhealthy self-esteem.  Eat to be strong, healthy and fit, and you will get a different result.

2.  When should a child or teen consider a weight loss program/diet?  When should they not diet?

Anyone can consider changing the way they eat if it is done in such a way that is about improving themselves, not punishing him or herself for not being "good enough" or "thin enough."  

If you are unhappy with your body size, talk to someone you love and trust about ways to begin to change your behavior to work towards your healthy weight (see #1).  

Obviously, being overweight or obese is unhealthy and can lead to a myriad of medical conditions, so changing our lifestyles is necessary if this is the case.  

The cautionary piece here is that many children are dieting before they even reach their teenage years.  Studies show girls begin dieting as early as age seven.

Dieting has become an epidemic in our nation, where women and men feel terrified of being overweight; for fear that they won't fit in, or be "good enough."  Our societal ideal for the ideal body is unrealistic and oftentimes, underweight.

Our kids are being led to believe that they must diet and be "skinny" in order to be accepted, and as a result, weight loss is no longer about being healthy and taking care of yourself, but instead transforms into a way to punish yourself or an act of desperation that is linked to self-worth.  

Children and teens need to be supported by a family member, friend, counselor or dietitian who can help them learn to take care of themselves in a way that is self-loving and supportive.  

3.  What should children or teens know about nutrition?

As much as they can learn, and then keep learning more!

Knowing about nutrition helps us make healthy choices, and gives us the confidence to be the "expert" on our own bodies, as opposed to trusting all these "diet gurus" out there trying to sell us their packaged ideas.  

Our kids are in such a transitional place in their psychological development, in that they are just learning to trust themselves and be their own judge of what is right or wrong. Childhood is spent looking to others to tell them what to do, think and believe.

As children grow into themselves, and learn who they are and what THEY believe, being educated, in this case on nutrition, will help them to learn to trust their own knowledge and this can only lend itself to a lifetime of health, as opposed to getting caught up in unhealthy eating or fad diets. 

Food can be fun (and not something to be feared, as so many adults believe).  Involve your kids in mealtime preparation and allow them to be active in creating their own meals while under your supervision.  And for those of you who are thinking they will therefore eat chicken nuggets or macaroni seven days a week, this is obviously not what I have in mind!  But there is a happy medium in there somewhere, and that is worth trying to find if it helps your children feel empowered around food.

4.  How does the media affect today's children and teens' body image?  What advice to you have to help them accept their body/have a healthy body image?

The media affects teen's body image immensely.  It is one of the biggest problems we see today, and leads to unhealthy dieting, eating disorders and low self-esteem.  The media is a machine that is designed to sell products that promise to make people feel good about themselves.  

The ideal weight that is being promoted is unrealistic and unhealthy in many cases. The more people feel that they don't meet the standard of being good/thin/pretty enough, the more products get sold.  

Kids and teens need to learn to feel good about themselves because of WHO they are, not what they look like.  Realizing that there is more to a person than their weight or looks is the first step in recognizing a person's self worth.

Finding support, through friends and family, and positive role models who focus on things other than weight and beauty is important.  Limiting the exposure to negative and critical media is important too.  Many magazines, TV shows, and other media outlets feed the message that our self-worth is about how we look.