Updated: Mar 1
The other day my son started asking me about “healthy foods.”
Is yogurt healthy?
Is a graham cracker healthy?
Is pizza healthy?
First, isn’t it awesome when your ids come up to you with questions like this? I love that my kids bring these to me, and it still blows my mind that these little humans think I’m Google. They ask me everything under the sun, from why mosquitoes like blood so much to why blueberries don’t taste 'blue' to why some people are so much better at (insert sport here) without even trying. Some questions are harder than others; some we end up on google anyway. Whenever I get these questions, it feels like a personal challenge. Partly, because when you talk to a child, you think about things differently. It’s almost too easy for a misunderstanding to occur or for your kid to take things so literally that an innocent question results in not-so-innocent behaviors. So it is really important to be very clear, and also to completely clear up any ambiguity around the topic.
This is exactly the case when talking about food. “Not healthy” can easily be interpreted as, “I’m never eating this food.” There are not a lot of foods that fall into the do-not-eat-at-all-costs category. And the last thing we loving parents want is for our kiddos to think they’ve done something wrong by enjoying a slice of pizza after going to the movies. Let’s keep things real here, folks, and dispel the ‘unhealthy’ myths. Instead of making kids worry about what’s healthy or good vs. bad, let’s instead talk about what you want to eat often and regularly, as compared to those foods you maybe should only eat sometimes. To make it easier, I explained that the foods you eat more often have added benefits, such as supporting your brain or muscles and fighting sickness. While the other foods that are OK to eat we don’t have as often because they don’t have those extras. So instead of saying a food is bad, we say which foods are super foods and better choices.
Research suggests that the vast majority of adults know what they need to eat to be healthier. That paints our food choices in a different light, doesn’t it?
Changing a child’s eating pattern is far easier than changing the eating pattern of an adult because kids have fewer things to worry about, don’t have stress and sleep deprivation pushing them towards calorie-loaded foods, and UberEats isn’t tempting you with the touch of a few buttons or sending you SMS suggestions and ordering deals. Here's the ultimate Jedi mind trick: food cravings decrease by making treats a part of the diet instead of an exception. As humans, we crave what we can’t have. When you completely restrict what you want, you end up desiring it more. When you restrict foods on a diet, it becomes a very slippery slope. Not only can it create strong desires to eat what you know you need to limit. But, when you give into that temptation and enjoy, you tend to overeat because you feel like you’re doing something you shouldn’t. And because you feel that way, you internalize shame and guilt. This leads to more stress, guilt and possibly negative self-talk, which can cause you to try and compensate with more extreme behaviors. This loop continues until eventually, this restrict-binge-restrict feedback loop breaks you. Coming out of this negative spiral, no one is going to focus quickly back on healthy eating; too much is flying around, out of control. This is NOT/NOT healthy eating.
Eventually, you find the courage to try and…only this time from a much worse place and an impending fear that history will repeat itself.
We live in a world of food temptation. The foods humans create (read: yes, create. Not grow) are designed to elicit strong cravings that defy logic, satiety cues and digestive processes. Man-made foods defy natural responses. The solution? Well, it is not to fight against our reality and create guilt around food. Perhaps rather it is to accept it and not restrict everything in a way that leads to strong rebound behaviors. When that occurs, psychologically, you have more control. Once that happens, cravings decrease.
Finding ways to learn to “eat more” of certain foods and “eat less” of others is an important part of the equation. But, if you can start by solving the other half — eliminating the guilt and shame cycle — you can avoid the trap door that sinks so many good plans and intentions.
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