A few weeks ago, as I was leaving my local Post Office, I passed a young mom and her little girl. The little girl, who looked to be about five, was whining about something. The mother said to her, “If you’ll stop crying, I’ll give you a cupcake when we get home.”
On the surface of it, the mother’s remark seemed innocuous enough. And maybe the remark had no connection at all to the fact that both the mom and the little girl were overweight. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was that mom inadvertently teaching her daughter?
Was she teaching her that sweets are a reward for good behavior? Was she teaching her that sweets are a way to assuage difficult emotions? If the child was learning either or both of these messages, she could be in for a lifetime struggle with issues around weight based on a dysfunctional relationship with food.
A new client recently came to my counseling practice about her compulsive overeating. She said she knew exactly how she acquired this behavior (and the girth that went with it). “When my brother and I were children, our parents told us that whoever cleaned their plate first could also eat from the sibling’s plate.” What message did she get about food? Maybe it was, “Eat all you can, as fast as you can, so you can eat some more.”
How many children have been coaxed or coerced to eat more than they want, for reasons that have nothing to do with actually feeling hungry or feeling full? “You can’t leave the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate.” “You have to eat because somewhere other children are starving.” “Here, have some cookies and you’ll feel better.” “If you don’t eat that, Aunt Jane will think you don’t like her cooking.” Messages like these endow food with illogical meanings.
I’m a life coach and counselor specializing in solution-oriented therapies for habits and stress management. I help clients contending with many types of habits, both behavioral and emotional, and, as you can probably surmise, I have an ample share of clients who struggle with overeating and obesity on a daily basis.
My work has afforded me the opportunity to interview hundreds of clients concerning their eating habits and thoughts about food. It comes as no surprise to me that many overweight individuals maintain a dysfunctional relationship with food, often due to beliefs about food that they developed in childhood.
To have an intelligent relationship with food is to regard food as a source of nutrition and energy. Therefore, hunger or a let down in energy or concentration are signals to eat. People who eat in response to such signals are attuned to their body’s nutritional needs. They select their foods and size their portions accordingly and without much conscious effort. They eat when they feel hungry and stop when they feel full. They automatically balance their calorie intake and energy output to maintain a healthy weight. People who succeed at this are clearly in the minority in America.
People who maintain a dysfunctional relationship with food do not eat according to their body needs or in response to body signals. Instead, they turn to food to soothe troubling emotions- especially foods high in fat, sugar, and starch. They eat for comfort; not for nutritional value. They regard food as a reward for an accomplishment or for getting through a difficulty. Having lost touch with physical feelings that communicate hunger, they eat according to external cues – the time of day, seeing other people eat, the smell of food, an advertisement for food, or a magazine cover picturing a luscious dessert.
Because they are no longer in touch with body feelings that indicate satiety, they have no intuitive gauge as to appropriate portion size. They don’t know when to stop eating, so they overeat, consuming excess calories that get stored as fat.
Such eating habits lead to obesity. These habits are resistant to change because they are associated with comfort, convenience, and relief from stress. They substitute for the hard work of self-awareness and self-discipline, confronting difficult emotions, and developing effective coping skills – the things many people go to therapy to learn.
Granted, there are other factors that contribute to obesity. One factor is a ready abundance of cheap, processed foods high in sugars, starches, and fillers, low in nutritional value. A sedentary lifestyle, genetic issues, certain medications, some illnesses, and poor sleep habits round out the list.
Nevertheless, with childhood obesity more prevalent than at any time in history, parents might consider the messages they give their children about food. Here are three things they would do well to teach, by word, deed, and example:
• Food is for nutrition and energy. Some foods are more nutritious than others.
Parents who teach this will make sure they provide an ample supply of nutritious foods for snacks and meals, exposing their children’s palates to the tastes of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein when their children are young. Sugary and starchy foods should be a rare, special-occasion treat; not a daily staple.
• Eat when you feel hungry. Stop eating when you feel full.
Parents who teach this will give their children child-sized portions and avoid battles over food. If Suzy doesn’t eat, she can leave the table. If she is hungry later, offer a nutritious snack.
• If you feel stressed, let’s talk it over, consider some options, and find a viable solution.
It takes more time and effort to talk things over with an unhappy child than to appease him or her with a treat or a toy. Yet, age-appropriate problem-solving is a skill worth teaching.
Finally, if you have a tendency to overeat, because you eat according to external cues in your immediate environment, or to soothe difficult emotions, or to reward yourself, or because you don’t know when to stop eating, then perhaps it’s time to examine your own beliefs about food and its meanings. You might want to rethink and replace any unintended messages you received about food when you were young. You might then cultivate an intelligent relationship with food.