A generation of parents raised on an unhealthy dose of dieting, weight obsession and eating disorders are ill-equipped to figure out how to feed their kids. The deluge of parenting tips is overwhelming, and the often contradictory food-related suggestions subtly undermine even the most attentive parent. How does a parent choose when faced with organic everything from produce to cheesy snacks? What does a parent do when one misstep feels like it can cause a lifelong eating disorder? And how can any parent tackle the impossible balance of "healthy" eating? Indeed, there is nowhere to turn. This is the case for the kids from well-off families while the poorer ones have limited access to "healthy" food, let alone supermarkets, and are becoming increasingly obese. The irony is that the only children who may get off scot-free are the ones left to their own devices. It may come as a shock to many, especially from a doctor focused on eating-related disorders, but food and meals are not meant to be perfected and obsessed over but simply to be eaten.
One of the almost magical abilities of our brains is to absorb skills and make them automatic. For instance, the acts of, say, walking or driving are relatively complex endeavors. They each entail a series of coordinated movements adjusting constantly to changing sensory input to be completed successfully. Yet, after a surprisingly short amount of practice, each becomes automatic. Both walking and driving can be accomplished with limited attention while our conscious minds are free. The same can be said of eating. Even if we focus our attention on the food we're eating, a few minutes into the meal the conversation, and our minds, have shifted elsewhere. Eating is an automatic behavior meant to be shared and social with the added benefit to enable us to survive. With the growing concerns around parenting and food, automatic eating is not the norm for the current generation of parents. Instead, when it comes to food, they have become obsessed with two things: starvation and fear.
Starvation is sadly the ideal state for many parents today. The pressure to remain thin is paramount. In a parental miasma of endless days filled with various organic snacks and the requisite birthday party pizza and cake, not eating looks like the only lifeline. Inevitably, the cycle of under and overeating takes root and numbs the parent into a cycle of hope and despair. The flip side of the typical starvation trap is the obvious need for secrecy: the children need to believe everything is fine. The fear of raising children similarly stuck in the disordered eating loop consumes many of today's parents. The current possible solutions, however well-intentioned, are unlikely to have the desired effect. Parents model undereating and overexercising behaviors, spend way too much time discussing “healthy” food choice and are often oblivious to their kids' inculcation into the cultural obsession with thinness. In other words, raising "healthy" eaters in today's environment inevitably means welcoming the newest group of disordered eaters to the world.
The easiest way to understand the difference between automatic and obsessive eaters is to compare the two in real life. Children are clearly born automatic eaters. Given a plate of food, it is mesmerizing (as an innocent bystander rather than a worried parent) to watch them work by eating, playing, experimenting and socializing. By the end of the meal, the child will have eaten his fair share and fully tested the texture of each food while also testing the limits of his parents' patience. In case it seems like I am describing an infant, this behavior lasts, in age-appropriate form, for years. What is truly educational is that these children don't starve. They eat what they need and play with or discard the rest. And this is automatic and intuitive. We are born with the knowledge of how, unconsciously, to eat.
The most obsessive eaters struggle with anorexia. Food, rather than embodying its social and nutritional value, becomes the source of endless psychological and emotional torture. The person has to consider every morsel of food in light of the internal drive to starve and become emaciated. No bite is ever automatic but instead induces fear and dread. Even in the face of medical illnesses from longstanding starvation, eating any meal is so wrenching that conscious attention can never be distracted from the food at hand. A person with anorexia has unlearned the ability to eat automatically. The concept feels completely impossible and foreign.
Armed with this information, the job ahead is apparent. A child is born with the innate ability to eat enough and not starve. Before the advent of endless child advice books to balance the current of thinness and dieting, parents just fed their kids. Until very recently, food choice was much more limited, and meals were just meals. Children sat at the table in front of a plate of food and ate what they ate. They all survived and grew into adults focused on life, not food. Perhaps today's parent will consider the more healthful options in a supermarket influenced by the powerful food industry, but to the children, food is just food. If the parents sit down and eat their plate of food, just as the children do, without obsessing about portions and calories and dieting and carbs, those kids may keep eating automatically and never learn there is another way to eat. The goal of talking to your kids about food is not to talk too much.
The next post will focus on some of the pitfalls that can still happen when faced with children dealing with eating issues at young ages. I am often asked either socially or by people who find me online similar questions about children and eating. I'll try to address some of them in the next post.