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How to help teens have a peaceful relationship with food

Body image can be fraught for many. That doesn’t have to affect the kids in your life.

American food culture is difficult for so many people, and for caregivers it can be a downright nightmare. Parents, especially mothers, are tasked with serving kids the “right” foods and cultivating the “right” attitude toward eating. Exactly what the right foods and attitudes are is hazy, as long as your child is thin; if they’re fat, there will be a chorus of people telling you that everything you do is wrong and your child should feel bad about themselves. To add to the pressure, parents are often blamed for their children’s eating disorders.

Trying to thread this impossible needle puts enormous stress on something every person needs to do many times a day: eat.

It’s time for a new objective, especially for tweens and teens. Caregivers have a lot of direct control over young children’s eating habits, and can also shield them from some outside pressures around eating. But as adolescence dawns, kids take on more responsibility for their own choices around food, while also being forced to navigate an often-hostile culture around body image.

Being a supportive influence becomes even more essential as children develop into young adults; an important step is knowing where you’re hoping they arrive at the end of the process. Helping your kid avoid an eating disorder is table stakes — beyond that, what should the goal be when talking to teens about food and body image?

“We really want them to be relaxed and flexible around food,” says Wendy Sterling, a registered dietician who specializes in eating disorders. “To really know how to feed themselves in a way that’s balanced and nourishing and satisfying — and fun and social.”

If you’re hoping to lay the groundwork for your kids to have a peaceful relationship with their bodies and what they put in them, here’s what experts suggest.

Address your own baggage first

Sterling wrote Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise and Body Image with co-authors Signe Darpinian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and specialist in eating disorders, and Shelley Aggarwal, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine.

These experts are unanimous that caregivers should spend time reflecting on their own feelings about and relationships with food. Ideally this reflection would happen when your kids are young, but even checking in with yourself before a conversation with your teen is useful. Many of today’s Gen X and millennial parents grew up feeling pressure to lose weight, during a time when dieting was normal and even encouraged. Letting go of those attitudes is often difficult, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But that doesn’t mean parents need to be perfect; many can and do go through this journey with their children.

“It’s important to frame it as a practice, not a finished product,” Darpinian says of rooting out anti-fat attitudes. The goal isn’t for body positivity to be its own kind of pressure — where you feel guilty for sometimes feeling bad about your body — but for there to be a general sense of neutrality toward bodies and food.

Simply avoiding body-related talk about yourself or others will go a long way toward cultivating a less judgmental atmosphere, says Sterling. Teens often say that even compliments can feel like scrutiny, she explains, and in a culture that nearly always sees weight loss as good, it’s possible that caregivers are praising disordered behaviors without realizing it.

Encourage an “all foods fit” model

Food is one of our most enduring relationships, says Darpinian. We’re constantly buying it, preparing it, eating it, and thinking about it. A good place to start addressing food with young people is by implementing an “all foods fit” model in conversation and in practice. In this approach, there is no food that’s off limits, says Sterling. It means “not just having quinoa and broccoli and couscous,” but also carbs, fast food, and dessert. Actively rejecting a good foods/bad foods dichotomy allows kids to understand the range of benefits food can provide, such as being a source of joy and pleasure, Sterling says.

Making space for all foods also helps correct the hostility dietetics has traditionally shown toward many cultures’ food traditions. “There is really a lack of diversity in reference to how we think about food and the ways in which different cultures influence food choices,” says Aggarwal. One example, she says, is families from Indian backgrounds who are “pushed to buy certain foods for their child because those are deemed ‘healthy,’” even though they aren’t a part of their food culture.

Most people can get the nutrients they need without making eating an exercise in perfectionism, adds registered dietician and nutritionist Amee Severson. Getting creative about nutrition can ease the pressure that would otherwise be put on certain foods. If, for example, you’re worried about your kids getting enough fiber, they explain, try Metamucil rather than forcing them to eat vegetables they don’t like.

Ultimately, make sure your kids know they don’t have to be trying to accomplish anything with food, Severson says: “You can just eat and exist.”

Leave weight out of it

Severson points out that kids are supposed to grow — and that means gaining weight, especially during the tween and teen years. “Weight gain is supposed to happen in puberty,” she says, “and that’s really villainized in our culture.” One of the most important things caregivers — and all the adults in kids’ lives — can do, according to Severson, is “normalize the weight changes and the body changes” of puberty and let go of the fear around it.

Kids’ bodies are not the problem, no matter what they eat. Pressuring kids to lose weight or make their bodies smaller is dangerous. Anti-fat attitudes are also dangerous, but the solution to that is societal change, not weight loss.

Aggarwal explicitly advises against routine weighing of young people, both at home and at the doctor’s office. “Weight does not make you healthy or unhealthy,” she said. This is in line with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advises against discussing weight with or in front of children.

“Try to avoid even those subtle messages about a good and bad body,” Aggarwal says. She suggests that parents work with health care providers who have weight-neutral approaches to health and well-being. Often, this means checking a provider’s website or calling and asking to see what their approach is. The Association for Size Diversity and Health is also currently revising its database of Health at Every Size professionals, with a target launch date in July 2022.

Pay attention to the media messages kids are getting

Everyone can benefit from broadening the range of body sizes they encounter in media. Discuss with your kids the anti-fat and pro-diet attitudes that you notice in TV, books, and movies, says Darpinian. Those won’t be hard to find — a 2017 study found that “weight-based stigma” was present in 84 percent of the children’s movies that were reviewed. For a positive media direction, seek out shows with complex fat characters, like Hulu’s Shrill (watch for the clothes alone) or My Mad Fat Diary.

Social media can also negatively alter perceptions of body image, but how much is still being fully understood. Even so, the algorithms can be redirected for the better with intention and effort. Seeking out and following accounts that make young people feel good for reasons other than appearances can be supportive of their mental health and well-being; UK nonprofit The Female Lead has an updated list of recommended role models to follow as a place to start. Another good rule of thumb is to pull back when everything you’re seeing looks like same: the same bodies, the same foods, the same visuals.

Teens need to know that the people they follow on TikTok or Instagram who make them feel bad about their bodies, exercise, or eating habits “deserve a firm unfollow or at least a mute,” Severson says. It can be hard at first for young people to notice that who they follow can affect their moods, but mindfulness practice can help them tune in. Occasionally reviewing their social feeds with them and drawing parallels to their behavior in other contexts can also help them start to make these connections. When in doubt, skip posting — remind them they don’t need to work out for the ’gram.

Be alert for red flags

Cultivating a peaceful and accepting environment around food and bodies is a proactive approach, but it’s not a catchall. Adolescence is a time where children push boundaries — and boundaries around food are no exception. Some totally fine eating habits may look a little weird to parents, so try not to freak out about it.

“Teens may go through phases with food, eating the same thing for meals, and then get tired of it and swear off it entirely,” Sterling says. And growing teens, especially those playing sports, might have energy requirements that are higher than their parents’, so requests for second and third helpings shouldn’t be a surprise.

Even so, it’s important to know about actual warning signs around food and body image. Darpinian, Aggarwal, and Sterling say that they often hear parents of adolescents in treatment for full-blown eating disorders say that they didn’t initially recognize a problem because they thought their children were “just eating healthier and exercising more.”

Whereas diet culture used to be straightforward in encouraging weight loss and restricted eating (remember the grapefruit diet?), today’s “wellness culture” is more subtle, Darpinian explains, even though it accomplishes the same thing. The National Eating Disorders Association recognizes extreme devotion to healthy eating as a kind of eating disorder in its own right, termed orthorexia. This goes back to the importance of making space for all foods: Restricting food groups or types of food, for any reason, is cause for concern.

“If my daughter came to me and said, ‘I just want to start eating healthier,’ I’d be like ‘Red flag! Red flag!’,” Darpinian says. She says she’d be as worried about a fixation on healthy eating as she would be if her child started smoking.

Also remember that eating disorders aren’t limited to girls. Boys’ eating disorders are often overlooked — and as a result, by the time boys with eating disorders are seen by a health professional, Darpinian says, they more often meet the criteria for hospitalization.

Even if you don’t think your child is at risk for an eating disorder, says Severson, it’s always worth digging into what kids might be feeling around food. Pay attention to what else is happening in their life: how school is going, what their friendships are like, and what their general stress level is. Eating disorders, body image issues, and concerns around food don’t exist in a vacuum, Severson says; they’re “really related to everything else.”

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