Having worked for two years with a non-profit that supports individuals with eating disorders, you would think that I'm an "expert" on these issues - that I always do the right thing with my child.
Like most parents, I know, intellectually, what I must do to create a healthy relationship with food, but my behaviour says otherwise.
Join me for a moment, and raise your hand if:
1) You keep a scale in your house. Do you weigh yourself every day?
2) You often say "god, I look terrible in this skirt" or "I need to lose a few pounds" or "take a look at this buddha belly!!"
3) You live a black-and-white kind of life. Yesterday, you ate cookies, ice cream and enjoyed your glass of red wine. Today, you've sworn off sugar entirely, committeed to never drinking coffee again, and claim that alcohol is a sin.
4) You label foods - "oh, honey, that cookie is really bad for you. Why don't we find something good, like an apple?" Bad vs. Good.
5) You're always on a diet. Or a cleanse. And then you're "off" again.
6) You deal with your emotions by clamming up, or acting out.
7) You either overexercise (pushing yourself to the limit, just in the name of weight loss) or you don't exercise at all, because you feel "weak."
8) You shovel your food in, never really enjoying its flavour. Mealtimes are stressful, and you become anxious when your child won't eat.
If you raised your hand to some of these, you most likely suffer from disordered eating. But before you panic over my (totally unprofessional) diagnosis of your condition, remember that probably 90% of our society is a disordered eater. You're not alone.
The good news is that disordered eating is entirely preventable. Sure, genetics plays a role, especially in more serious forms of disordered eating (anorexia and bulimia). Research has shown that anorexia has a strong genetic component, whereas bulimia and binge eating have strong links with our culture (which is why rates of anxorexia remain stable over time, and rates of bulimia and binge eating have skyrocketed over the past 20 years - because of our increasing focus on weight and food)
The answer would be to stop doing all of the things I listed above, but we know that this is easier said than done.
So the first question to ask yourself is: how much of a problem is this for me? All forms of eating disorders reside on a spectrum, from mild to severe. If you find that your life is consumed by food and weight issues, I strongly urge you to seek the help of a therapist. There are many good therapists here in Ottawa.
If, like me, your relationship to food is generally healthy but you know that there is room for improvement, consider some of these tips on preventing disordered eating. The important ones include:
- getting rid of the scale. Seriously....throw it out the window, or smash it to bits!!
- stop labelling your food. There no longer exists "junk" food and "health" food. All food is food.
- down with diets!!! What kind of message are you sending to your child when the rest of the family gets to enjoy a cookie, but you're "not allowed."
- enjoy gentle exercise that involves your children. Go for hikes, play sports, or just get outside to the playground!
- teach your child to think critically. When they point to the poster of the half-naked lady at La Senza, ask them "does that look like a real woman? Why do you think the store wants to put up pictures like that?"
- teach acceptance. If you are ridiculing a friend or family member for being a "porker," your child will grow up to have similar attitudes towards people who are a bigger size.
- make mealtimes stress free. No phones, no TV's and no discussions about food. Choose topics to discuss and stimulate interesting conversation. Promote mindful eating - chew your food slowly and carefully, and allow yourself to quietly savour the taste.
Over the next few months, begin by implementing one of the tips above. Then move on to the next. Explore how hard it is to change your behaviour, and reward yourself for small changes (eg. you can't throw out the scale, but you stop stepping on it every day).
In parenting through the early years, you have complete control (perhaps not the best word....influence?) over your child's food and relationship to food. You can establish healthy patterns that will last a lifetime. Sure, peers will have an influence later on, as well as genetics. But your kids will never forget your words and actions, and their childhood memories will be strongly tied to their experiences at the dinner table.
Be conscious, and tread carefully.