Despite what you might think, people can develop an unhealthy relationship with food at a very young age: One review found that about one in four American children diet before the age of 7, while another study revealed that 80 percent of 10-year-old girls say they’ve dieted. Though there are many different variables that affect a person’s habits and attitudes toward food — including their genetics — parents and guardians also provide a major influence. So whether you’re a parent or simply someone looking to understand where their eating habits came from, here’s a guide to the dos and don’ts surrounding food culture in the home and some tips for how to combat emotional eating and seek help if you think you might have an eating disorder.
1 Not Teaching You How to Regulate Your Emotions
One of the biggest things that can cause people to develop an unhealthy relationship with food, according to licensed marriage and family therapist Janet Goldstein-Ball, is not being taught as children how to regulate their emotions in healthy ways. “So then [children] do that with food or with other kinds of food behaviors,” she tells LIVESTRONG.COM, whether that means eating a pint of ice cream because you had a bad day or eating a ton of pizza because you're nervous before test. It's important for parents to model appropriate ways to deal with tough emotions that don’t involve food, such as journaling or meeting up with a friend.
2 Focusing Too Much on Willpower
Licensed clinical psychologist Andrea Thornton, Ph.D., tells LIVESTRONG.COM that the media we’re constantly consuming gives us unrealistic expectations about our bodies; many parents often enforce those expectations by being overly controlling of the kinds of foods we eat. “There’s a message [that] in order to be attractive, happy, successful, worthwhile, then you have to be thin,” says Thornton. “And we also get a message that goes along with that, which is: Anyone can be thin with enough willpower. And that’s actually not accurate information.” While we do have some control over our weight, Dr. Thornton says that our body shapes and sizes are actually largely driven by genetics. “We don’t have as much control over how we look as we might like to think,” she says.
3 Banning or Severely Restricting Foods
It may sound like a good idea for parents to cut soda or other sugar- and fat-filled foods from their child’s diet, but doing so can actually be detrimental to a child’s wellbeing in the long run. “As soon as you feel deprived of something, that’s the thing you’re going to crave and eat too much of when you get it,” therapist Janet Goldstein-Ball says. These types of behaviors can result in a pattern of binging or being overly conscious about what you are eating. Instead, parents should create a healthy balance of food in their pantry, including both nutrient-dense foods and treats. “If the kid occasionally wants treats, let them have treats,” Goldstein-Ball adds. It’s all about moderation.
4 Teaching Good Foods Vs. Bad Foods
Similar to banning or restricting foods, teaching children that there are certain foods that are “bad” can affect their desire surrounding that food in the long run. “There really shouldn’t be a positive or negative balance to any food. All foods fit into a healthy diet,” licensed marriage and family therapist Christine Tcharkhoutian tells LIVESTRONG.COM. She gives the following as an example of a healthy household mentality: “We can have all sorts of food in the house. We can eat those foods in moderation and in a way that is going to help us fuel our lives and is meant to be enjoyed.”
5 Criticizing Your Appearance
It’s natural for some children to carry more weight and for others to be a bit thinner. And when a parent sees that their child isn’t at a “normal” weight, they often feel the need to intervene out of guilt. “But that’s not really your job as a parent,” Tcharkhoutian says. “Your job is to love them, and through that love — and also through self-love — they’ll end up finding behaviors that are going to be right for them.” That means avoiding commenting on a child’s appearance and instead promoting a body-positive environment. According to therapist Janet Goldstein-Ball, that means letting “them know that they’re beautiful and wonderful, no matter what size or what they look like, and that they have more value than just a body.”
6 Promoting Diet-Positive Language
Even if a parent isn’t explicitly telling a child to diet, a parent's own self-talk about weight and dieting, can directly impact a child’s behavior. “Most 9-year-olds aren’t being told by their parents that they need to go on diets, they’re hearing their mom and their aunts saying, ‘Oh, I’ve gained so much weight, I need to do this,’” therapist Christine Tcharkhoutian says. “So they’re not saying, ‘My mom told me to go on a diet.’ They’re saying, ‘My mom’s going on a diet, so that’s the thing that I want to do.’” She says that using diet-positive language around children can distort their view of how to achieve happiness, teaching them that being thin or always eating nutritious foods will automatically make them happy — which isn’t the case.
7 Modeling an Obsessive Relationship With Food
Parents don’t just express their relationship toward food and eating through language, they also model it through their own actions. Tcharkhoutian gives the example that it’s not enough for a parent to allow their children to have ice cream every once in a while; she says parents should be able to treat themselves to ice cream every once in a while too. “I think the first thing that parents can actually do in creating good habits is work on their own relationship with food and have good habits for themselves,” she explains.
8 Forcing You to Eat at a Certain Time or a Certain Amount
Parents will sometimes force their children to eat at a certain time or finish all the food on their plates. But according to Tcharkhoutian, it’s totally healthy for children to make those kinds of decisions for themselves. “They might not be hungry, and they might not want to eat all the food on their plate,” she says. “And that’s fine. They need to have that empowerment and ownership of their actions.” To teach children structure and balance surrounding food, Tcharkhoutian recommends making dinner food available only at dinnertime, but having other foods (such as apples and yogurt) available in case your child gets hungry later on. This strategy teaches children how to make their own choices surrounding food, while also allowing them to “learn the limits and bounds of choice,” Tcharkhoutian says.
9 Not Eating Together as a Family
Whether in the car, at their desks or on the go, Americans are eating alone now more than ever. In fact, according to a 2015 report from the Food Marketing Institute, more than half of all meals and snacks are eaten solo. But according to therapist Janet Goldstein-Ball, that means that families are missing opportunities to connect and teach children about mindfulness around food. “If families at least have one home-cooked meal together once a week, that is tremendously important for the health of the family,” she says. “Because that’s a time for everybody to really connect and talk and share about their day and what’s been going on in their week. That connection is really important for the health of the family.”
10 Not Unplugging During Meals
If you tend to check your phone during meals, you’re not alone. Instead of trying to be in the moment, Tcharkhoutian says that people are placing more value on how many things they can get done at once. “We’re using food as a distraction instead of the main event,” she says. “But what that creates is a lot of the issues that we see people come to therapy for — a lot of anxiety, depression, feelings of disconnectedness.” Instead, parents should ask their children to put their phones away and turn off the TV during meals. Staying present while eating is “a way of paying respect to yourself and your life and staying connected in that way,” Tcharkhoutian explains.
11 Using Food as a Reward or Punishment
When a child accomplishes something, such as getting a good report card in school, it might be tempting to take them out for an ice cream cone. But according to clinical psychiatrist Andrea Thornton, developing a reward or punishment system around food can foster an emotional relationship with eating. “You want to put more value on spending time together, talking to your children, letting them know with words and affection and quality time how much you care about them more so than them getting that need met through consuming a particular food item,” she says. While it’s totally OK to treat yourself or your child to food as a reward once in a while, Dr. Thornton suggests that you expand your idea of what a reward can be. Some examples of nonfood-related rewards include going for a walk, spending time with friends or reading a good book.
12 Not Providing Any Guidance About Food
Being overattentive to a child's food and eating habits can lead to unhealthy eating habits down the line, but ignoring those things altogether can bring on a whole other set of problems. "Society and culture will influence and educate where parents don’t," Tcharkhoutian says, meaning that children who aren't being taught how to eat in a balanced way by their parents will look to the media, their friends, or what's available at school for guidance. That could mean anything from getting their lunch out of a vending machine to skipping lunch altogether. What's more, not taking the time to teach children about food and eating can make them feel as though they're not important. "Not being concerned at all is sending a lot of messages to your kid as well, that either parents don’t know or they don’t care enough about them to give them rules," Tcharkhoutian says.