Supporting our children in developing a healthy relationship with food & body

Dr. Katie Loth, Assistant Professor, Dietitian, Mother of Three
Erin Martin, MBA, MSW, LISW, WithAll’s Director of Engagement and Programming

We all want our children to lead healthy, happy lives. But in today’s world, it can be increasingly difficult to know how to best support kids’ physical and mental health. As a parent, you have a powerful opportunity to shape the way your children think about and feel in their bodies and in turn, you have a powerful opportunity to shape their current and future health.

As parents, we all want our children to lead healthy, happy lives. And you face a constant barrage of information from doctors, social media, public health initiatives, and other parents who provide you tips and tricks for the very best ways to help your children to achieve optimal health. Many times, these messages come with advice for how to help your kids maintain a healthy diet and optimal weight. As a parent, you’re encouraged to make sure that your kids fall within certain narrow margins of weight and height limits, that their snacks don’t have too much sugar, their meals are homemade and carefully chosen to include only the freshest local ingredients, and that they are getting the exact right amount of movement each day to maintain or achieve the “right” weight for them. And you’re are made to feel that if you don’t do these things, you’re failing as a parent.

Along the way, many of us end up teaching our kids a number of black and white messages about what it means to be healthy. You might teach them that there are good foods and bad foods or that physical activity is just something we do to help us lose or maintain weight. And many parents find themselves emphasizing to your children the incredible importance of maintaining a low weight. But these ideas oversimplify the incredible complexities of how diet and weight impact our health. And when you talk about diet and weight in these oversimplified ways, your efforts can backfire. The result is that you risk setting your children up for a lifetime of physical and mental health challenges – something none of us would ever intend to do as parents.

When we focus exclusively on diet and weight, we’re missing the point. The point is that you want our kids to feel healthy and comfortable in their bodies. But research shows that engaging in children in weight-focused conversations can set kids up to feel shame or guilt about the food they eat or the way they look. Worse yet, overemphasizing the importance of weight and shape to the children in our lives can lead some children to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.

What if instead, we as parents shift the focus away from diet and weight and towards a focus on health and overall well-being?

Health and well-being are the result of many factors. To achieve health and well-being kids (and adults, too!) need relationships that foster connections, hobbies that show and remind us who we are, physical activity that invigorates and refreshes our minds and bodies, opportunities to learn new things, take on challenges and succeed, time spent outside in nature, food that we enjoy eating and nourishes us, and so much more. As a parent, you can work to shift your focus away from diet and weight and towards teaching your children about the happiness that can come from cooking, eating, and joyful movement, all activities that can help children to feel like their best selves. You can move away from teaching kids to count calories or carefully monitor the number on the scale, and instead seek to help kids develop a broad understanding of health and all of the things they need to develop into healthy, happy adults.

As a parent, you have a powerful opportunity to shape the way your children think about and feel in their bodies and in turn, you have a powerful opportunity to shape their current and future health.

So, how can you engage kids in understanding the importance of developing a sense of overall well-being? Check out our other resources for more tips and tricks here. But as a parent and Registered Dietitian myself, here are a few tips I often suggest to families to get started:

  • Create a healthful home environment that includes a wide variety of foods and opportunities for joyful movement.
  • Model healthful food intake and regular physical activity, including eating meals with your child and finding ways to be active together.
  • Ask your child to reflect on how certain foods or activities make them feel, and encourage them to do more of the things that they enjoy, that give them energy, and that nourish their mind, body, and spirit.
  • Talk to them about what vitamins and minerals specific foods provide to support their growing bodies, or share with them how their bodies work.
  • Watch this video to learn more about how I deal with some common challenges in my own home.

And remember, you’re not always going to get it right. Do your best to incorporate these new ideas into your life, listen to yourself and adjust as you go until you find the words and actions that you believe and want the children in your life to take with them. Be kind to yourself, and trust that even making a few changes to the way you talk to and around the kids in your life can have a significant impact on helping them grow into healthy and happy adults.