How Much Protein Does A Nine Year Old Boy Need Helping Children Develop an Intelligent Relationship With Food

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Helping Children Develop an Intelligent Relationship With Food

A few weeks ago, as I was leaving the local post office, I passed a young mom and her little girl. The little girl, who looked to be about five years old, was whining about something. Her mother said, “If you stop crying, I’ll give you a cake when we get home.”

At first glance, her mother’s remark seemed harmless enough. And maybe that remark had nothing to do with the fact that both the mother and the girl are overweight. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: what was that mom inadvertently teaching her daughter?

Did she teach her that candy is a reward for good behavior? Was she teaching her that candy was a way to ease difficult emotions? If a child has learned one or both of these messages, they may struggle with weight issues throughout their lives based on a dysfunctional relationship with food.

A new client recently came to my counseling office because of her compulsive overeating. She said she knew exactly how she acquired this behavior (and the extent that followed). “When my brother and I were kids, our parents told us that whoever cleans the plate first gets to eat from their sibling’s plate as well.” 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 are forced or forced to eat more than they want, for reasons that have nothing to do with actual feelings of hunger or fullness? “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 give food illogical meanings.

I am a life coach and counselor specializing in solution-oriented therapies for habits and stress management. I help clients who struggle with many types of habits, both behavioral and emotional, and, as you can probably guess, I have quite a few clients who struggle with overeating and obesity on a daily basis.

My work has given me the opportunity to interview hundreds of clients about their eating habits and thoughts about food. It’s no surprise to me that many overweight people maintain a dysfunctional relationship with food, often because of beliefs about food they developed in childhood.

Having an intelligent relationship with food means seeing food as a source of nutrition and energy. Therefore, hunger or reduced energy or concentration are signals to eat. People who eat in response to such signals are attuned to their body’s nutritional needs. They choose food and portion sizes accordingly and without much conscious effort. They eat when they feel hungry and stop when they feel full. They automatically balance 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’s needs or in response to the body’s signals. Instead, they turn to foods to soothe distressing emotions—especially foods high in fat, sugar, and starch. They eat for comfort; it’s not because of the nutritional value. They see food as a reward for an achievement or for getting through a hardship. Having lost touch with the physical sensations that express hunger, they eat according to external cues – the time of day, seeing other people eating, the smell of food, a food advertisement or a magazine cover showing a sweet dessert.

Because they are no longer in touch with the bodily sensations that indicate satiety, they have no intuitive gauge of the appropriate portion size. They don’t know when to stop eating, so they overeat, consuming excess calories that are stored as fat.

Such eating habits lead to obesity. These habits are resistant to change because they are associated with comfort, convenience, and stress relief. They replace the hard work of self-awareness and self-discipline, dealing with difficult emotions, and developing effective coping skills—things many people go to therapy to learn.

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to obesity. One factor is the near abundance of cheap, processed foods high in sugar, starch and fillers, with low nutritional value. A sedentary lifestyle, genetic problems, certain medications, some diseases and poor sleeping habits round out the list.

Still, with childhood obesity more prevalent than at any time in history, parents may want to consider the messages they give their children about food. Here are three things it would be good to learn, by word, deed and example:

• Food serves for nutrition and energy. Some foods are more nutritious than others.

Parents who teach this will make sure to provide enough nutritious foods for snacks and meals, exposing their children’s palates to the flavors of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources while their children are young. Sweet and starchy foods should be a rare treat for special occasions; not an everyday staple.

• Eat when you feel hungry. Stop eating when you feel full.

Parents who learn this will give their children child-sized portions and avoid food battles. If Suzy is not eating, she can leave the table. If she’s hungry later, offer her a nutritious snack.

• If you are feeling stressed, let’s talk about it, consider some options and find a viable solution.

It takes more time and effort to talk things through with an unhappy child than to soothe them with a treat or a toy. However, age-appropriate problem solving skills are worth learning.

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 it may be time to examine your own beliefs about food and its meaning. You might want to rethink and replace all the spam messages you received about food when you were young. Then you could develop an intelligent relationship with food.

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