I was 12 years old in ballet class when my teacher walked over, pushed her hand into to my stomach and said, "You must be eating too much of your parent's food." My parents owned a deli. Thirty years later those words still echo in my mind. Puberty sent me transitioning into junior's clothing. I remember trying on a size 3, then size 5, and finally having to settle with a size 7 that required three inches of hemming. I wasn't a fat girl; the term was chunky.
Another image buried in memories includes returning from a family vacation with the grandparents where we ate out every day consuming grilled cheese sandwiches and our afternoon ice cream treat. My mom commented on how much weight I gained. I knew I had a "problem."
By 14 years I was already putting myself on diets and restricting my food intake as I saw my mother do year after year. I was supported and encouraged in my efforts.
Throughout my 30s and 40s I read tons of diet and nutrition books and increased my protein, decreased my carbs, loaded up on water, exercised more, did more strength training, experimented with weight loss supplements... and the list goes on.
In 30 years never I read about health. Emphasis was always placed on losing weight, toning a certain part of my body, or hitting that magical number on the scale. One book in particular though started my thought process in a new direction: Intuitive Eating. It focused on why I was eating, listening to my body, and rejecting the diet mentality.
As I mom of a young daughter I hope to impart a new way of thinking that will instill a lifetime of healthy habits. In our family the word diet does not exist, nor does weight loss, or even fat. We don't own a scale or talk about our clothing size. We talk about everything in terms of health and what is best for our bodies -- physically and mentally. The goal is to re-frame the way we look at food. By incorporating a few techniques you can start your children on the path to a new generation of healthy.
Teach food is fuel. As early as 3 years old I explained to my daughter that our body needs different types of foods which are like fuel for our body. Some foods provide protein for muscles, others give us minerals for strong bones, and some bring us energy. Let children know that there are healthy choices that fuel our body and other choices that do not. When we give our body the right fuels it can keep us healthy. This shifts the emphasis from an external picture of health to the real purpose of food.
Satisfied vs. full. I never used the word full until recently. I always asked, "Are you satisfied?" Satisfied is a much different feeling than being full. Most of us are conditioned to eat until we are full, which is often too much. Asking if you are full sends the message that you should eat beyond capacity. At 5, I can now ask my daughter if she is satisfied or full. She understands what it means to reach the level of satisfaction vs. being full. Now she turns down food because, "I am satisfied and don't want to get full."
Listen to your body. Children are intuitive. They instinctively know when to stop eating. It's usually us adults that are pushing more onto them: "Do you want another helping? Would you like more?" If we instead stop and ask, "What is your body telling you?" they will often respond honestly. "What does your body want to eat right now?" Yes, I know your thinking your children will say, "a cookie!" But, they might surprise you. If given time and practice to listen to what they really want a child will make healthy choices.
Moderation. I know we hear it all the time. Knowing it is one thing, applying it another. Moderation is a great way to replace "good" and "bad" foods. We use traffic light eating and categorize our food by green, yellow and red lights. Green means go, eat as much as you want. Yellow signifies to slow down, eat daily, but in small amounts. Red means stop and think. We can enjoy these treats occasionally, but in smaller portions. We can't avoid every birthday party or control what happens outside our house, but if we let our children know that special foods can be enjoyed sparingly it no longer becomes this looming evil we constantly confront.
Our babies will be bombarded with images of those skinny, airbrushed models who endorse the low-fat processed invention of the month. If we can begin early to teach them the true meaning of healthy, maybe their struggle will be a little easier than ours. This all might change when my daughter turns 12, I'll let you know. But for now I will embrace her healthy 5-year-old body and continue to empower her with knowledge of what it really means to be healthy
Dawn Wynne is a best-selling children's author, award-winning teacher, and certified health coach. Combing her love for the environment, passion for nutrition, and teaching talents she works with children and families to help them make healthy lifestyle choices. For information on her books visit her at www.dawnwynne.com.