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Guest Post: Intuitive Eating Helps You Support Your Child’s Mental And Physical Well-Being For The Long-Term

January 17, 2022

An intuitive eating approach with kids is associated with improved mental and physical health while reducing the risk for eating disorders.

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By Sumner Brooks, MPH, RDN, CEDRD – Co-author of the newly released book How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence

An Intuitive Eating approach with kids is about so much more than getting them to eat broccoli, or to consume less sugar–in fact, it is not about either of those things specifically.  It’s a great gift you will be giving them: the support to develop confidence in and respect for their unique body, while also increasing the likelihood they will avoid experiencing what many people suffer from–a guilt and shame-laden relationship with food. It’s an approach supported by a solid evidence base that demonstrates it is associated with improved mental and physical health while reducing the risk for eating disorders. 

The stress that many people experience in their daily lives around food, disordered eating, and body distress is closely associated with mental health and we can’t overlook the importance of mental health as it relates to overall health. This is where the majority of childhood feeding and nutrition advice misses the mark.

Intuitive Eating, a way of eating without dieting or rigid food rules, is counter-culture. Developed and first written about in the 1990s, Intuitive Eating is finally joining fad diets in popularity among those in the wellness industry – but it is the farthest thing from another diet. In fact, it encourages total rejection of diet mentality, and a return to listening to the wisdom of one’s body – something all of us are born with from day one. The long-term ramifications dieting, weight shame, and disordered eating have on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being are severe and they impact kids just as much, if not more than, adults.

There is a very real problem happening for our young people today – the over-focus on weight and appearance combined with the need parents and caregivers feel to over-control and restrict certain foods. Diet mentality in adults, is projected on to kids in the feeding relationship. It is all backfiring. Although there is a great deal of research looking at the impact over-control and attention on weight is having on children and teens, you don’t even have to know about this scientific evidence to see the result of diet mentality. Kids, teens, and adults are facing an epidemic of disordered eating, disconnection, and body shame that have lasting consequences on self-esteem, health behavior, and mental health.

Many, if not most children in today’s world learn early on in life that what and how much we eat are things to carefully monitor if we want to attain a body that is acceptable, “healthy”, worthy, and loveable.  I am frequently approached by concerned parents asking for advice about their child hiding and sneaking food, restricting food, or falling into rigid unhealthy patterns about what is acceptable to eat, known as Orthorexia. If you weren’t exposed to weight worries, dieting, or food restriction of any kind as a child, you might not know it, but you actually experienced a protective environment against body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. 

A 2017 study looked at over 10,000 college students across twelve campuses. The study found alarmingly high rates of eating disorders and disordered eating – 49% of students who identified as female and 30% of students who identified as male. These were the kids who were born around the year 2000 when the “childhood obesity epidemic” narrative started to take off. What we’re now seeing, is that by the time kids who were raised in a society that places BMI as a primary indicator of health reach college, they have a very high chance of developing disordered eating including behaviors such as binge eating, vomiting after eating, using risky weight control methods such as diet pills, and restricting food.

Intentionally Reject Dieting And Rigid Thinking About Food

When parents intentionally reject diet culture and diet practices at home it can help protect and build up resilience so they will be more likely to question unhealthy diet rhetoric and messaging and maintain a positive and healthy relationship with food and their bodies despite our culture’s obsessions. More than 74 percent of women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five reported that their concerns about shape and weight interfered with their happiness. This is not what we want for our kids. 

Parents, when faced with the goal of wanting to embrace Intuitive Eating for their families, often feel a lack of understanding on how to successfully make the shift – both in their own eating experience as well as for their children. How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence, provides parents with 3 simple keys as a framework for how to focus on well-being, not weight. 

The 3 Keys outlined in the book tackle these two main objectives: 

  • Help kids develop a core belief that their worth as a human does not rest on their appearance, their weight, or how they eat. 
  • Support your child to find a way of eating that is pleasant, nourishing, and as much as possible, internally driven.

If you connect with the desire to support kids with these objectives, you’ll want to learn more and pick up How to Raise an Intuitive Eater or listen to my interview with Dr. Diana Hill. You can also check out these 10 tips I suggest for families to get started on a new path as soon as you’re ready.

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