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The seemingly innocuous lesson of teaching kids about healthy versus unhealthy eating

The seemingly innocuous lesson of teaching kids about “healthy” versus “unhealthy” eating

I have had numerous conversations about how categorising food and eating behaviours as “healthy” or “unhealthy”, while it may seem intuitive and helpful, is actually counterproductive and potentially damaging. Hearing that this was being promoted at my daughter’s kindergarten this week, however, has prompted me to write about it.

Parents and professionals alike desire the best for our children. When it comes to eating, teaching kids how to sort through the media’s mixed messages can be tricky. Labelling food as healthy or unhealthy would seem to be a helpful strategy to cut through the confusion and assist our children in making nutritious choices so that they can be healthy. Categorising food and eating behaviours in terms of healthy (good, clean, pure, nice…) versus unhealthy (bad, dirty, evil, naughty…) is not only unhelpful, but potentially damaging for several reasons.

What is actually “healthy” is (changing all the time) debateable and depends on one’s overall health, nutritional requirements, lifestyle, and activity levels. For example: a diabetic person who needs jellybeans; an autistic child who only eats white food; an athlete replenishing with a sports drink; someone recovering from gastro drinking lemonade…

Categorising food in this way detracts from a child’s ability to eat intuitively (stay tuned, I will write more about “How we train our children out of intuitive eating” another time). Rather than thinking about what they feel like eating, they may start thinking about what they “should” be eating – thus starting to eat more according to rules and routines rather than hunger, body needs, tastes, and pleasure.

Labelling eating behaviours as healthy and unhealthy or good and bad suggests that food has a moral value. It doesn’t. Food is food. Moralisation of eating can lead to children feeling guilty about their choices. “I’ve eaten something naughty, so I should feel bad.” “I feel guilty about wanting a treat, because it’s unhealthy.” Further, guilt-driven eating behaviours can lead to restrictive eating or secret eating. Furthermore, moralisation of food can influence children to internalise these labels. “I ate something unhealthy, so I am unhealthy.” “I had a bad food, I must be bad.” “I like treats, therefore I am naughty/ indulgent/ gluttonous.”

There are a few things you can do to help our children develop healthier, intuitive, mindful, informed, and relaxed relationships with food and eating:

• Refer to food as “everyday” and “sometimes/ occasional” food if you would like a way to help guide children’s eating choices. These categories are much harder to assign a moral value to, and much harder to internalise.

• Where possible, relax eating routines to encourage your child to eat more intuitively and according to their hunger. Allow them to determine their portion sizes. Refrain from demanding or encouraging them to finish what’s on their plate or eat something they don’t like or don’t want.

• Get your children involved in growing food, shopping for food, preparing food, and eating together where and whenever possible.

• Help your children understand how food is broken down in the body and how the body uses proteins, carbohydrates, sugars, vitamins etc..

• Take the focus off eating for weight-loss or weight maintenance and instead discuss food for function, energy, and enjoyment.

• Role-model a healthy, intuitive, mindful, informed, and relaxed relationships with food and eating.

Further information and resources:

• Dr Rick Kausman

• Eating Disorders Victoria

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