So it’s no surprise that I was concerned when I spotted a doctor’s note in my electronic health portal that described me as “overweight but alert.”
I chose a sensible nutrition plan, marketed as a “lifestyle change”, not a diet. Still, I worried about how it might affect my children (ages 7, 12, and 15) to see me watch my food intake, following rules such as “water first, vegetables the most” and skip the carbs at dinner.
Here’s what I learned from the authors about the science of raising truly healthy children.
Do parents’ food and dietary habits influence how their children eat?
Yes, say these experts. It is well established that “how a parent eats, how they buy, how they prepare, how they prepare and how they offer food influences the child’s experience of food and the body” , Aggarwal said.
While I’m quick to blame my mother for modeling dieting behavior during my childhood, I recognize that she likely internalized the norms of the dieting culture of her day.
Aggarwal urged parents to reflect on their own complicated experiences with body image and try to develop a personal practice of wellness. “You can only give what you have,” she told me gently.
What’s wrong with working on weight loss?
“Skinny doesn’t mean healthy,” Aggarwal said, so we need to stop using weight to indicate whether someone is healthy, attractive, or worthy. Parents need to make children understand that no one’s worth is based on their appearance, weight, or how or what they eat.
How can focusing on “healthy” eating become problematic for families?
The pressure parents feel to raise “healthy” children of a particular weight can lead them to adopt rigid approaches to meals and snacks, including rules such as saying “no dessert until until you finish dinner,” obsessing over nutritional information and categorizing foods as “good.” “or bad.”
Experts recommend checking whether a teen’s or your relationship with food or exercise seems out of balance. According to Darpinian, parents often said they overlooked signs of eating disorders because they thought their teen was “just trying to eat healthier and exercise more.”
What should parents do instead to promote well-being?
“Food is so much more than protein, starch, vitamins and minerals, but many people struggle to have fun with food,” Aggarwal said. She encouraged families to remember that food is at the “heart of the human experience” and an important source of connection through cultural traditions, holidays and special events.
Families need to look beyond appearances to a broader view of the essentials that enable us to experience wellness, such as mental health, sleep, food, and movement in fulfilling and joyful ways.
Comments such as “I’ll have to run tomorrow to eliminate this dessert” establish a troubling link between exercise and food intake. Instead, the authors said in their sleep chapter that parents can “focus on the many practical benefits of exercise, including improved mood, energy and sleep, stress relief and metabolic fitness”.
How can we help teens deal with stress, sleep and social media?
Parents can guide teens toward choices that have been scientifically proven to be essential for well-being. For example, the authors pointed to studies that show how getting enough, consistent sleep improves athletic and academic performance.
Likewise, the use of technology must be intentional and regulated. Parents need to proactively monitor — and teach children to be aware — of time spent online and the impact of social media on their sleep and self-esteem.
What if a parent or child starts out hating their bigger body?
If “body positivity” seems out of reach for parents and teens unhappy with their bodies, Darpinian recommended using micro-goals proven to help us achieve our goals more effectively. To improve body image, practice reducing body-controlling behaviors such as obsessively looking in the mirror or looking at pictures or comparing yourself to others.
Instead of focusing exclusively on trying to achieve an ideal weight or height, experts suggest encouraging wellness behaviors that promote holistic intuitive self-care.
“We know that if you improve your health behaviors and do a good job of getting to bed on time, you manage stress effectively, you eat intuitively, and you get used to moving in ways that are happy for you, the result will be your body’s natural body weight,” Darpinian said. A therapist can help if there’s grief or disappointment to accept where their body naturally ends up.
How do you discuss body stigma with teens and set boundaries with family members?
The authors have included wisdom from Virginia Sole-Smith, Dismantling Diet Culture, for example how to respond when your teen asks, “Am I fat?” or talking about diet and how to discuss fat phobia.
The book also provides useful scripts for difficult boundary setting situations. I could never identify what bothered me about comments (even positive ones) about my appearance until the authors provided the perfect answer: “When you comment on my body without my consent, I feel angry and j ‘hear in my head that you are scrutinizing my body.
Stopping dieting doesn’t mean I’ve given up on my family’s health. Instead, I hone a holistic, non-dietary approach to our nutrition, fitness, and wellness.
Jodie Sadowsky is a Connecticut-based writer. She can’t wait to hear the ways her children will say she failed to become a parent.