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Food & Eating

Exploring the roles Food and Eating play in the development of an Eating Disorder

The environment surrounding food and eating issues in a family can play a role in the development of an Eating Disorder. It is important that kids learn to eat healthfully and that food is nothing more than an enjoyable means of energy for their bodies.


Food or Emotion?

Probably one of the biggest mistakes made with kids in the issues surrounding food is to equate food with emotion. Food is not love, pride, sadness or a friend. It is something our bodies need for fuel to keep us healthy and strong.

Too many times food is used as a reward. A child does something good, gets a good report card, does what they are told, succeeds in a sport, etc., and then immediately gets to go to MacDonalds for dinner, go out for ice-cream, or have some candy or some kind of treat. There are much better ways to reward children: Hugs and kisses and statements such as "I'm proud of you!"; taking them to a special event they want to go to (baseball game, concert, carnival, circus, movies); taking them out to buy something special related to the achievement (book, art supplies, sports equipment, computer game); spending time doing something special with them (build a model, do a puzzle, color, build with legos, play cards, read a book, make up a story). There are a plethora of other options as opposed to giving them something to eat!

Using food as comfort for a cut, bruise, bump on the head, broken arm or any other injury is another example. The same applies to emotions like sadness, loneliness and grief. Children need to be comforted with hugs, communication and validation, and spending time with them until they feel better. They need to cry when they feel hurt or sad. They need to yell when they are angry. They don't just need something to eat.

It's not uncommon for food to be used as a punishment. For example, such as with a statement like, "you cannot have anything to eat until you do what I said." Kids ask to eat because of their natural sense of hunger. Corrupting this by forcing them to unreasonably wait will destroy their ability to determine when they are really hungry.


Hunger

Forcing kids to eat when they are not hungry, or feeding them when they are bored will, again, destroy their sense of hunger. This teaches them to ignore being hungry or being full. It is common for all parents to use statements like "you will not leave the table until you finish what is on your plate." Realistically, arguing about eating everything on a child's plate is ridiculous and unnecessary. Fighting over meals creates more harm than good by having a central issue focus on eating. There is nothing to fear; Children will and do eat when they are hungry.

Encouraging play and independence helps children learn to keep themselves occupied. It is good to foster activities like drawing, coloring, reading, playing with blocks and legos, playing with dolls, cars and trucks, making up stories, playing dress-up, role-play games, board games, riding bikes, playing in the dirt, Frisbee, sports, playing with a pet, playing on playgrounds and swingsets, swimming, etc. etc. Children should not rely on television for entertainment because they will more often get bored and have a false sense of hunger. Kids often learn to equate boredom with wanting to eat.


Normal Eating

In conjunction, most children need structure. It is up to parents to teach their kids that normal eating consists of three well-balanced meals a day and two healthy snacks. Meals should be around the same time every day. There should be an assortment of snacks available and children should be able to have or not have their snacks based on hunger and need. Unless your child has a diagnosed biological disorder that effects their sense of hunger or ability to control how much they eat, you should essentially let them eat as much or as little as they like.

Let your kids try and taste new foods (short of food allergies of course). Let them explore their own sense of eating and enjoying it! Start at a young age and let them have fun with it. You might be surprised at what your kids like!

Another mistake often made is to think children should not have sweets. "Junk food" in moderation is fine (as long as they brush their teeth!). Restricting sweets from their diet will only later backfire and make them want it more, especially as they approach the school age and see other children eating and enjoying candy, cookies and chips.

Because of hurried schedules and the increasing number of households where both parents work, we are often missing things from our diets. It is probably a good idea to have your children on a good one-a-day multi-vitamin (just check with your pediatrician). This is not a replacement for food, just a way to supplement some of the vitamins and minerals they may be missing from their meals and snacks.


Set an Example

In combination with all of the above, you should set a good example. Kids learn their behaviors and lifestyles from the immediate role models around them, and thinking with the logic "do what I say, not what I do" will not get you very far.

If you typically use food to comfort or reward yourself, your kids will probably do the same. If you eat when you're bored, so will your children. If you skips meals and have no consistency of schedule they will pick up these habits too. Kids who have parents who are always dieting learn to think dieting is normal. Children learn to walk and talk by watching those around them, and they will absolutely learn their eating habits by watching their parents and immediate family.


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