Parents who peer into my pantry may be shocked to see a shelf filled with candy, like Milky Ways, Almond Joys, and gummy bears. Unlike most parents, I rarely limit my daughter’s intake of sweets. Nor do I demand that she steer clear of the treat section of the cupboard.
While some people may think I’m creating a junk food addict, my parenting practices are based on scientific research.
It sounds like a paradox, since research indicates that 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese. And most parents understand the importance of teaching their kids healthy eating habits to avoid long-term health concerns like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Because of these risks, pediatricians and nutritionists recommend decreasing our kids’ sugar intake by limiting sweets, like soda, candy, and cupcakes.
However, I’ve taught my daughter how to eat mindfully by doing the opposite.
As a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, I know that controlling what our children eat may lead them to develop poor eating habits in the future. In fact, a recent research study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that parents of obese children were more likely to directly restrict their child’s intake of sweets.
The study, which included 237 mothers and their children, examined each mom’s response to her child’s desire to eat sweets. The researchers found that mothers whose kids were overweight were more likely to respond with restrictive statements, like, “One dessert is enough.” The mothers whose children didn’t have obesity gave more open-ended responses, such as, “That’s too much, you haven’t had dinner.”
The conclusion: While setting firm boundaries with our kids may help them complete household chores and homework assignments (i.e., no screen time until you’ve cleaned your room), these statements may not prevent children from overeating. Why? Because when it comes to eating habits, research shows that restriction can increase our desire for the “forbidden foods.”
The way we talk about food gives it power
Food restriction and dieting in childhood can contribute to a higher risk of binge eating later in life. When parents call desserts “sweets,” “treats,” or “bad food,” they unknowingly give the food “special” power. This labeling can increase a child’s desire to eat more of the so-called “bad food.”
But by talking about chips, cookies, and candy like any other food, we can disarm the power they hold over our children. The bonus when approaching food education in this way is that it may prevent kids from developing body image concerns during adolescence and young adulthood.
And if you want to avoid getting into a power struggle over whether or not your kiddo can eat Skittles after dinner, remind them that the candy will be available the next day. Using tactics like this one can help kids avoid “all-or-nothing” thinking, reminding them of their power to make smart food choices on behalf of how their bodies feel.
Still, most parents seek some guidance on how to teach their kids healthy eating habits. It really does come down to an individual choice. Instead of controlling what my daughter eats, I empower her to make wise food choices on behalf of her growing body. Modifying how I talk to my daughter about food helps strengthen the mind-body connection. For example, instead of saying, “Finish your lunch or you’ll be hungry later,” I often say, “Listen to your body, is it telling you that you’re full?”
Mindful eating starts at an early age
According to Harvard Health, research shows that mindful eating can teach people better eating habits. It does so by encouraging them to bring present-moment awareness to the food they eat.
Carla Naumburg, a mindful parenting coach and clinical social worker in Newton, Massachusetts, says that most kids are naturally mindful eaters, and our job as parents is to cultivate this awareness.
“Mindful eating practices can foster a child’s awareness and curiosity about the food they eat and help them listen to their bodies for signs of hunger and satiety. Instead of imposing strict rules around how much a child eats at each meal, we should model how to tune into internal cues and support their children in doing the same,” she says.
Teaching our children how to eat mindfully means examining and understanding our own eating behaviors. “We don’t need to fix all of our unskillful eating habits. That’s hard work that you can’t accomplish in a busy lifetime, but we do need to be aware of them so that we don’t pass them along,” Naumburg adds.
For example, when I was a kid, my mother dieted frequently, relying on the wisdom of Richard Simmons to help her shed unwanted pounds. She’d often judge herself for eating certain foods.
While she was careful not to berate herself in front of me, I’d overhear her talking on the phone to her friends, saying things like “I’m so bad, I wasn’t supposed to eat any carbs, but I had two cookies after dinner” or “I was good today, I didn’t eat any sugar.”
Even if we’re not directly telling our kids this, when they overhear it they’ll understand that foods fall into “good” or “bad” categories, and that our worth hinges on the choices we make.
Limit food distractionsNaumburg says families can begin to eat more mindfully by limiting distractions, like screens, including tablets and phones, during mealtime. She also recommends offering children a variety of food choices.
Focus on body awareness and less on self-control
However, developing a healthy relationship with food doesn’t stem from self-control — it comes from self-awareness. Paying attention to how various foods make our bodies feel can help cultivate this insight, which is an exercise we can teach our kids.
For example, my daughter knows that eating too many sweets makes her stomach hurt. Because she’s aware of this body cue, she can self-regulate how much sugar she consumes.
Ultimately, teaching our children to trust their bodies is one of the best ways to help them develop healthy eating habits. By learning this lesson, they discover that making wise food choices comes from within — a skill that can help them throughout their lives.
Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion. See what she’s up to on Twitter.