top of page

How our children see food starts with us

If you, like me, grew up in the 80’s, 90’s or 00’s era, it is highly likely that you remember the front pages of magazines strewn with very underweight celebrities and on turning the page you were confronted with the” best diets to lose a stone in a week” or “who wore it best?”; a feature where the editor would compare woman side by side and rate them on how they looked compared to someone else in the same outfit.

This messaging taught us that the most important thing about us is the way we look, and we should all aim to look thinner, younger and whiter,  regardless of what our natural bodies feel their best at. It brainwashed us to believe that other women are our competition and we need to compete, although little did we know at the time that the prize was a decade or more of disordered eating and poor body image; and sometimes we unconsciously passed those harmful diet culture beliefs and behaviours down to our children; because as I know too well, our children do not do what we say, they do what we do; we call this observational learning. This study explores that observing someone else perform a behaviour is more important to learning the behaviour than verbal reinforcement. For example, me eating vegetables in front of my children has more of an effect on them eating vegetables, compared to me just telling and rewarding them for eating their vegetables. 

What observational learning also means is that if I am weighing my foods, counting calories, avoiding carbohydrates, telling myself how naughty I am for eating cake; it is also likely that my children will weigh their foods, count calories, avoid carbohydrates and tell themselves how naughty they are for eating cake - even if I tell them they are wonderful and can eat as much cake as they like. 

This study suggests that children of parents with an eating disorder are at increased risk of both feeding and psychological difficulties as well as having an eating disorder themselves. We know eating disorders are complex and not the result of diet culture alone or parental eating habits alone; and we know there is a genetic component which could be the reason for this; however if as parents we can develop a neutral or even positive relationship with food, not only are we going to enjoy life more, but we are modelling this to our children, and through observation learning this can support them to have a neutral or positive relationship with food and prevent them from getting sucked into a lifetime of dieting. 

Research suggests that children of parents with an eating disorder at increased risk of eating disorders and psychological difficulties.

With the internet saturated with information, it can be difficult to know what a healthy relationship with food actually is and what we don’t know is hard to model. There is not one definition of a healthy relationship with food, but generally we say that a healthy relationship with food involves eating foods that we enjoy as well as ones that make us feel our best such as those with adequate nutrients and energy in. We also don’t want to allow food to control our life, so this means we spend some time thinking about what we want to eat or planning our meals, but we don’t let it consume our days. 

Knowing that food is so so much more than fuel and our relationship with it goes so much deeper than the energy and macronutrients it provides us is really important too; we associate it with so many different memories and emotions such as love, celebration, comfort. One of my comfort cravings if I am feeling a little low is weetabix with hot milk, this is something that nan used to make me as a child if I wasn’t feeling great, so unconsciously it reminds me of feeling nurtured and loved. Once we honour and appreciate food for everything it offers then we can really start to improve our relationship with it. Just like any relationship it takes time, effort and patience for that relationship to become safe and nurturing.


Here are five ways you behave if you have a neutral or positive relationship with food

  1. You sometimes eat everything on your plate, you sometimes leave some food, you sometimes have seconds. 

Some ways that you might behave if you have a healthy relationship with food include eating when they are hungry and stopping when they are full most of the time. This may mean that sometimes you finish your plate and sometimes you don’t, sometimes you go for seconds and sometimes you tuck into thirds. At times it is natural and normal to eat past comfortable fullness too, think of Christmas dinner plus all the mince pies and chocolates, and that is also okay. This models to our children the importance of listening to our bodies most of time because if we do they will let us know when we are hungry and when we have had enough. This can be challenging because often our mind, filled with quotes from magazines and things we have heard from our own mothers become our own inner voice and tell us to skip the carbohydrates or avoid the dessert; but if we tune into our own body, alongside our own knowledge, this combination will tell us what we need. 

2. You talk neutrally about foods and avoid using terms like “good”, “bad” or “naughty”

Talking about food using phrases like “I am so naughty for eating that” or “I have been so good today” places morality on food, where as in reality food is food, some food contains more energy or nutrients and other food contains less energy or nutrients but that does not make either better than the other. The issue with labelling foods is that if we eat a food we perceive as “bad” we often feel bad about it; it is important that we speak factually about foods for ourselves and our children. If we notice our children’s behaviour changes after having too many sweets instead of saying “we can only have a few because they are bad for us, we could say “lets enjoy half this packet today because if we have more they might make us feel a bit dizzy, so let’s enjoy these now and have the rest tomorrow”. Challenging our own inner beliefs about food can support us to be kinder and more compassionate to ourselves too. 

3. You don’t just have a slither of cake, unless that is what truly feels good for you.

We do want to base our daily diets around foods that make us feel good in the long term and support us to avoid diseases; however we also want to enjoy all food without feeling restricted. There is no physiological need to ban any food from the diet completely. When we feel restricted this increases our risk of dichtomous thinking and lowers our self esteem. If we think eating a normal size slice of cake is bad, we restrict ourselves but never actually feel satisfied which this study suggests we will often then go onto eat more which leads to feelings of shame and guilt and contributes to negative affect (ie. low mood).

4. You eat when you are hungry … and sometimes when you are not hungry

This may sound silly BUT so many individuals try to delay eating for as long as possible when they feel a hunger pang; attempting to push hunger away with coffee, fizzy water, gum or distraction of any kind. The feeling that hunger is the enemy is deeply rooted in diet culture, unconsciously the belief system makes the connection that hunger is linked to food which is linked to weight gain which is linked to being unlovable; only this is so unconscious that we just feel hunger and think this is bad, or a threat. 

Hunger is just the body speaking to us, telling us it needs nutrients and energy; and we build a healthy relationship with our body by listening to it and respecting it, just like any relationship. 

There may be times when we eat when we are not hungry too, and that is healthy too; for example we may be enjoying our food and eat a bit more, we may have a meeting planned when we know we would be hungry so we eat before in order to prevent being too hungry; this takes time and practise to learn but this preventative eating is a skill our body will thank us for. 

5. You don’t change how you eat depending on what you see on social media 

If you see a aesthetic body on social media and your scroll through their page and see “What I eat in a day videos”  it is common to think “if i eat like that i will look like that”, but you won’t, that person may not even eat like that, and you have different genetics and lifestyles This survey found that over half of people (56%) woudl change their eating based on what they saw on SM. Thus study suggests that general social media engagement was associated with body dissatisfaction, restrained eating, and overeating. The only guidance you should follow is from registered professionals such a dietitian; “dietitian” is a protected title and therefore someone who is advertising themselves as a dietitian has studied in clinical practice for four years and has to maintain an ethical approach; however the title “nutritionist” can be used by anyone so making sure they are adequately qualified and on an accredited register is really important. Don’t be afraid to ask to see qualifications and remember that more followers does not mean more knowledge


Final remarks 

In a world that glorifies thinness, female competition and restriction; it is a courageous thing to step out of the cycle of chronic dieting, both for yourself and for your children. 

If we want our children to grow up trusting their bodies, we have to learn to trust ours. If we want our children to grow up feeling free to eat all foods without guilt, we have to learn how to feel free around foods. If we want our children to grow up knowing their appearance is not the most important thing about them, we have to learn that our appearance is not the most important thing about us. If we want our children to grow up enjoying food, nurturing their bodies, resting when they are tired and crying when they are sad, we have to learn to enjoy our food, nurture our bodies, rest when we are tired and cry when we are sad.

It is not our fault that we have these deeply harmful ingrained beliefs about our bodies and food, but it is our responsibility to question them. The change starts with us. Healing starts with us. 


bottom of page