So it was no surprise that I was concerned when I spotted a doctor’s note in my electronic health portal that described me as “overweight but alert.”
I chose a sensible nutrition plan, one touted as a “lifestyle change,” not a diet. Still, I worried about how it might affect my kids (ages 7, 12 and 15) to watch me tracking my food intake, following rules such as “water first, veggies most” and skipping carbohydrates at dinner.
Here’s what I learned from the authors about the science of raising truly healthy kids.
Do parents’ eating and dieting habits influence how their children eat?
Yes, these experts say. It’s well-established that “how a parent is eating, how they are buying, how they are preparing, how they are plating and how they are offering food influences the experience of the child in reference to food and body,” Aggarwal said.
Though I’m quick to blame my mom for modeling dieting behavior during my childhood, I recognize she likely internalized the diet culture norms of her day.
Aggarwal urged parents to reflect on their own complicated experiences with body image and try to develop a personal practice of well-being. “You can only give what you have,” she told me kindly.
What’s wrong with working on weight loss?
“Thin does not equal health,” Aggarwal said, so we need to shift away from using weight to indicate whether anyone is healthy, attractive or worthy. Parents should make clear to kids that no person’s worth rests on their appearance, their weight or how or what they eat.
How can focusing on eating ‘healthy’ become problematic for families?
The pressure parents feel to raise “healthy” kids of a particular weight can lead them to adopt rigid approaches to meals and snacks, including rules such as saying “no dessert until you finish dinner,” obsessing over nutritional information and categorizing foods as “good” or “bad.”
The experts recommend checking whether a teen’s or your own relationship with food or exercise seems imbalanced. Parents commonly reported overlooking signs of disordered eating because they thought their teen was just “trying to eat healthier and exercise more,” according to Darpinian.
What should parents do instead to promote wellness?
“Food is so much more than protein, starch, and vitamins and minerals, yet many people struggle to have fun with food,” Aggarwal said. She encouraged families to remember that food is at the “heart of the human experience” and an important source of connection through cultural traditions, holidays and special events.
Families must look beyond appearance toward a broader view of the core things that allow us to experience wellness, such as mental health, sleep, and eating and moving in ways that are fulfilling and joyful.
Comments such as “I’ll need to run tomorrow to work off this dessert” troublingly link exercise with food intake. Instead, the authors said in their chapter on sleep, parents can “focus on the many practical benefits of exercise, including improved mood, energy and sleep, stress relief and metabolic fitness.”
How can we help teens manage stress, sleep and social media?
Parents can guide teens toward choices that have been shown to be scientifically critical to wellness. For example, the authors pointed to studies that show the ways sufficient and consistent sleep improves sports and academic performance.
Similarly, technology use should be intentional and regulated. Parents should proactively monitor — and teach kids to build awareness of — time spent online and the impact social media has on their sleep and self-esteem.
What if a parent or child is starting from a place of hating their larger body?
If “body positivity” sounds unattainable for parents and teens unhappy with their bodies, Darpinian recommended using micro-goals that have been proven to help us reach our goals more effectively. To improve body image, practice reducing body checking behaviors such as obsessively looking in the mirror or at photos or comparing yourself with others.
Instead of focusing exclusively on trying to reach an ideal weight or size, the experts suggest encouraging wellness behaviors that promote overall intuitive self-care.
“We know that if you improve your health behaviors and you’re doing a good job of getting yourself to bed on time, you’re handling stress effectively, you’re eating in an intuitive way and in the habit of moving in ways that are joyful to you, the result is going to be your body’s natural body weight,” Darpinian said. A therapist can help if there is grief or disappointment involved in accepting where one’s body naturally ends up.
How do we discuss body stigma with teens and set boundaries with family members?
The authors included wisdom from diet culture dismantler Virginia Sole-Smith, such as how to respond when your teen asks, “Am I fat?” or talks about dieting, and how to discuss fat phobia.
The book also provides helpful scripts for challenging boundary-setting situations. I never could pinpoint what bothered me about comments (even positive ones) on my appearance until the authors supplied the perfect response: “When you comment on my body without my consent, I feel angry, and hear in my mind that you are scrutinizing my body.”
Giving up dieting doesn’t mean I’ve given up on my family’s health. Instead, I’m honing a holistic, non-diet approach to our nutrition, fitness and well-being.
Jodie Sadowsky is a Connecticut-based writer. She can’t wait to hear the ways her children will say she fell short in parenting.