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Teaching your kids about food will not cause eating disorders

There’s a dangerous thread running through the national conversation about kids and food, and it is this: If you talk to your kids about food, if you teach them to understand ingredients and to actually think about what they eat — and, heaven forbid, you actually limit junk food — you are setting them up for, at best, rebellion-fueled binges, or, at worst, an eating disorder.

I cry foul.

The truth is we are doing our kids far more good than harm by teaching them to think critically about food. Food isn’t food anymore. Check the ingredients, take a bite. Even everyday staples contain troubling additives. Foods are now “fortified” because vitamins have been stripped in processing. Flavors have been manipulated to be addictive. And the food supply is increasingly adulterated by pesticides, GMOS and the taint of factory farming. And it’s never “just one” anything anymore. Special treats used to be just that — special. But the combination of relentless food marketing and a harried, mobile society has created a 24/7 food culture that feeds kids any time they gather, a culture that uses food for everything from reward to distraction.

The fallout of this onslaught is astonishing: More than a third of children are now overweight or obese. Kids are being treated for high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes (formerly called “adult-onset diabetes”). And this generation of children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. Along with this crisis of metabolic syndrome, we’ve seen an unprecedented rise in the number of children with allergies, behavioral disorders and digestive conditions increasingly associated with the standard American diet (acronym: SAD).

That’s what we really need to worry about. Not correlations based on fear instead of fact.

Education, not deprivation

I get it. Eating disorders are scary. If you haven’t experienced one yourself, you likely know someone who has. For me, it was close friends in both high school and college, and then covering the issue as a health care reporter. And now there’s an especially frightening movement called “pro-ana,” which, among other things, glorifies the physical attributes of anorexia. So yes, this is disturbing stuff. But eating disorders are not about food — they are complicated psychological conditions that manifest in food.

So what about people who say they had food-restricted childhoods and then developed eating disorders? Look closely and you’ll likely see one or more of these themes: adult role models who were obsessed with dieting, weight and calorie-counting; food used as reward, punishment or other emotional manipulative; and, in some cases, extreme outright bans of entire food categories (e.g., no sweets ever, no matter the ingredients or frequency).

Then look closely at what’s not there: rational, thoughtful food choices; awareness of how those food choices affect our bodies; and children brought into the conversation in a way that encourages learning and critical thinking.

Done right, teaching children about food empowers them. It doesn’t scare them or make them anxious or cause them to binge. And it does not cause eating disorders. As I often say when people ask whether I give my own daughter sweets or other treats: Food literacy is about education, not deprivation

So hell yes we have sweets. And potato chips. And boxed mac and cheese. Even soda. But the sweets are homemade or, if store-bought, made with recognizable ingredients. The chips are the real deal (potatoes, oil, salt).  The mac and cheese is Annie’s, not Kraft. The soda is seltzer and fruit juice, not high-fructose corn syrup and caramel color. And, importantly, Tess knows why we make the decisions we do. We don’t ban or demonize whole categories of food. We choose based on ingredients and sourcing, and how foods taste and make us feel. Even treats can (and should) be high-quality. Kids can indulge in childhood pleasures like lemonade and popsicles, cupcakes, candy and the rest without also indulging in petroleum-derived food dyes, dangerous trans fats and chemical preservatives, and the countless other synthetic additives that make a mess of  even simple foods.

Junk food doesn’t have to be junk food.

Bad foods, bad mantras

Does that mean I think some foods are “bad”? It sure does. Though it’s really about the ingredients, not the food itself. Is cake bad? No. Is a neon-frosted, 50-ingredient, processed-to-within-an-inch-of-palatability grocery-store cake bad? Yes.

Food manufacturers and marketers, and even many dietitians and nutritionists, adopt a mantra of “there are no bad foods” or “everything in moderation” or “there’s a place in our diet for all foods.” In a different time, with a different food supply and a different food culture, those mantras might have meant something. Not anymore.

Just because a company makes something and calls it “food,” just because stores stock it or restaurants sell it or your TV advertises it, that doesn’t mean we have to buy it, eat it or feed it to our kids.

Here’s Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an epidemiologist with the Harvard School of Public Health, quoted in a New York Times article about a 2011 study finding that not all calories are equal:  “There are good foods and bad foods, and the advice should be to eat the good foods more and the bad foods less. The notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.”

Similarly, people like to claim that if you limit sweets and other non-nutritive treats, that you’re asking for trouble when your kids get older. But Kelly Brownell, who just left his post as head of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity (for a new job at Duke), says that’s not true. Here’s an excerpt from an NPR story in March:

Some parents worry that having only healthy foods at home will lead kids to overdo it with junk food when they head off to college. But Brownell says there’s no evidence to support this worry. And, in fact, the reverse is probably true.

Even if the young adults indulge in unhealthy foods at first, they’re far more likely to return to the healthy foods they grew up with. “Having only good foods around the house makes all the sense in the world, and research supports this,” he says.

Backlash and back-to-basics

Are there exceptions? Sure. And there are extremes, too. I had a conversation with another mother before Halloween. She asked how I handle the candy Tess collects trick-or-treating. I explained how we sort-and-toss (or save for gingerbread houses) based on ingredients. (More details in this post.) And how Tess eats a few pieces of the junky stuff and then has no interest. We’ve always let Tess taste whatever she wants, on the theory that it will make her better appreciate the real stuff (and it does). And I’ve also tried to instill the idea that if something has bad ingredients, the only reason to eat it is if it tastes really (really) good. Otherwise there’s no point.

This mother keeps her son and family on a strict diet of extremely low (or no) sugar and fat — it doesn’t matter the source, doesn’t matter whether it’s homemade or not — so it wasn’t a surprise to me what she said next: “I wish (son’s name) would do that. But he gets candy in front of him and he eats it all.”

See, this is where things get tricky. And hazy. And this is why so many people are so quick to paint all food-conscious parents with the same broad brush (namely, orthorexia). As I’ve written before, I believe these fears and criticisms are in part a knee-jerk backlash against the so-called “elitist” organic movement. Apparently it’s OK for parents to say no to, oh, violent video games and inappropriate tween clothing, but limit what their kids eat? Horrors!

Seriously, though, do you know why else I think people react like this? Because they’re scared. And stressed. And overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of food information out there. Every day, there’s a new study or article that contradicts some other study or article. There’s debate about this diet, that diet, the best diet, the only diet. Agendas are epidemic. And staying on top of it all is exhausting. (I know!) So people shut down. They throw up their hands. They eagerly embrace claims that moderation trumps ingredients, and that talking to kids about this stuff creates eating disorders. Because to believe otherwise is to face, once again, that torrent of information.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. My husband and I decided long ago that we’d abide one “food rule”: Eat food as close to its natural source as possible, as often as possible. We don’t count calories or worry about nutrient grams or percentages, or obsess over making sure every bite is nutritionally optimized. We try to select whole foods or else packaged foods that are minimally processed and have recognizable ingredients, foods that generally can be categorized as SOLE: sustainable, organic, local and ethical. When you view food through that lens, things look a lot simpler. Truly.

Though if you want a more guided approach to eating real food, check out the terrific blog 100 Days of Real Food. Blogger Lisa Leake breaks it down and makes real food seem accessible in a way no one else does. And while you’re there, read this heartfelt post Lisa wrote after being told by some readers that she was setting her daughters up for eating disorders.

Education. Not deprivation. Big difference.

Spoonfed is on Facebook. You’ll find links to blog posts, news and commentary on raising food-literate kids, questions and comments from readers, the works. Stop by, like the page, chime in, spread the word. (Thanks.) Also please consider subscribing by e-mail or RSS feed (which you can do at the top of the blog).

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{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Sam May 17, 2013, 4:32 pm

    Very thoughtful post. As an RD who specializes in eating disorders and is passionate about nutrition education, this is certainly a topic of interest. I am a believer in no good or bad foods – on the surface – and related to deprivation. I use those terms to help people in their relationship with food and to decrease judgement on themselves about their eating. I like your cake example – clearly they are not all created equal. Having said that, I’m also very concerned about food dyes, GMOs, harmful ingredients, etc and advocate for real food, and fully agree we need more education in this area. I find it can be a diffiult balance and I strive to meet someone where they are go forward from there. I agree that people are fearful and stressed, which are two very big barriers to overcome – but not impossible! Thanks for another informative post that I hope generates good discussion. Keep up your good work!

  • Jamie May 17, 2013, 5:11 pm

    Great post! It is stressful trying to make the right choices for our kids. I choose to talk to my kids about food and I believe that is the right decision. It is nice to have some support on this decision.

  • Caty K May 17, 2013, 5:13 pm

    This is SO well written and on-point about how to approach healthy eating and teaching your kids about it in a way that is NOT extremist, is realistic, and optimal–and does not promote issues!! Yet does not cave into the idea you should let kids eat anything they want all the time without any regard for making the “best choice”.

  • RJ May 17, 2013, 7:29 pm

    Fantastic article, thank you so much.

  • Laura May 17, 2013, 10:15 pm

    Terrific. Thank you for promoting healthful, rational and nourishing eating.

  • Magda May 18, 2013, 7:20 pm

    Very well written post. I totally agree. I try to teach my two boys (ages 3.5 and 9) about food, where it comes from, how to eat ‘better’, etc. all the time. My 9 year old argues with the so-called ‘experts’ and ‘nutritionists’ at school already! Even though his habits are not that great (no veggies, etc.) – he knows what’s good and what’s not. I simply try to keep the conversation going, take him shopping with me and just keep the lines of communication open.

  • Lynn Donahue May 20, 2013, 12:57 pm

    You need to get this so well-articulated and thoughtful article out there – D & C, City, NY Time? I’m not an expert on who and how, but I think your article should get out to the naysayers and individuals that may not even give food choices the time of day. And you often give me ideas and resources to share at home. Thanks!


  • Courtney @ FamilyGoneHealthy May 20, 2013, 12:59 pm

    Great post and I totally agree! I think you are right-on about the distinction between educating kids about food and depriving them of certain foods. We eat healthy foods most of the time, but we try never to worry about the food that my daughter eats on playdates, at school, etc. I figure that she is getting almost all healthy food at home so it will balance out in the end.

  • Cactus Wren May 20, 2013, 10:59 pm

    The account of your acqaintance and her son’s issues with Halloween candy reminds me of my mother’s pathetically misguided efforts to make vegetarians of my and my kid brother. (Hint: if you want your kids not to eat meat, don’t feed them hamburgers only as a *special treat*.)

  • Helene @ French Foodie Baby May 21, 2013, 12:38 am

    Great post! Right there with you. It’s all about the love and appreciation of real foods, and balance. My blog is all about this, the education of taste (French-style), you should come by some time :-). Just wrote a post on mindful eating, which I think is key. And this related post on junk food might also be of interest: http://frenchfoodiebaby.blogspot.com/2013/03/simple-chocolate-pudding-and-fight.html

  • Michelle May 21, 2013, 3:15 pm

    Excellent post! You make some really great points. I posted something on FaceBook and several people came after me about this particular topic. They said feeding my children healthy is going to cause them to have an eating disorder. How absurd!

    Thank you!

  • Amy May 21, 2013, 4:53 pm

    Such a great post!! My first thought when I read the story of your acquaintance and her son was that he might be less likely to binge on candy if he had some fat in his diet. No sugar and no fat? Poor kid.

  • Holly Morello May 23, 2013, 10:48 am

    Well said! I do think there is a balance too. Actually, part of it is teaching your children to be respectful and empathetic about other peoples choices. I certainly made some mistakes and saw them come out with what my son repeated. We found that he and our whole family had life changing transformations using Paleo/WAPF foods as our framework. We found that he does so much better without milk and gluten. We also found out that he doesn’t do that great when he has a lot of starchy carbs despite being an athlete. However, when we first started, apparently he would go to school and tell everyone at lunch that their wheat and milk was going to kill them! I wasn’t exactly saying that at home but it was a real wake up call about how I educated him about food! I want people to pay attention to what he is saying and not think he and him mom are wacky! He is very strong, muscular, and a great student as a result of his diet. I think because of that, is peers are starting to take notice and listen (especially since he has changed the delivery of his message-as I have!).

    • Jen June 4, 2013, 11:17 pm

      Oh wow, this is us. Our entire family is Paleo, and ridiculously healthy. Cutting gluten cured my son of his asthma entirely, so he had also been telling the kids at school that wheat (gluten) and milk were going to kill them, and told the school lunch lady that she was responsible for all the kids who had asthma at school…. that was a FUN conversation with the administrators! He’s only 9, so I guess that’s how he saw things. He’s better now, but I do still hear him tell his buddies “McDonalds is POISON!” or “Gatorade has flame retardant in it! That’s POISON”! (I’m totally allowing those statements though :))

  • Deceptively Educational May 24, 2013, 6:39 pm

    Spot on. It’s important to me that my sons understand what makes a “bad food” bad and a “good food” good. As I continue my journey to feed our family with real food, I’m also making a conscious effort to help my school-aged son understand the reasoning behind my choices, giving him an age-appropriate explanation to ease resistance. So far, this approach is working. Just this week I posted a free printable book I made on my blog to help my son understand food labels – namely sodium, sugar, and fiber. I know this lesson was effective because he’s been asking me questions. It’s started a dialogue, got him thinking, and made him more accepting of the healthy alternatives I’m proposing to some of his favorite foods.

  • Kerry May 25, 2013, 12:49 am

    Great info! Maybe it is semantics, but I try to describe food as “healthy” vs. “not-so-healthy” in our household, rather than good or bad. And then of course I talk about why it is healthy or not. I also refer to sweets as “sweets” instead of treats, because a treat can be a non-food item, such as renting a movie, getting toenails done, an outing with mom, etc.

  • Elizabeth May 25, 2013, 9:16 pm

    Thank you for this brilliant post. It seems that you and I are on the same page on this issue. It’s been 7 years (and counting!) since my family and I went ‘additive free’. Yes it meant more work for me (grocery shopping takes longer as I need to read labels, I cook many things from scratch at home, etc) but it has meant a huge improvement in our health (hubby no longer has headaches, my son and I both have ADD/ADHD which has been infinitely easier to deal with) and a huge saving in money. My son doesn’t miss out on anything. He still gets cake and candy and potato chips, but the cake is usually homemade, and the other stuff is the real deal without all the nasty stuff. He’s almost 10 now and has been spreading the word among his friends at school. He’s an active boy, with a very healthy attitude towards food. Sure he likes watching tv and playing computer games, but you’re more likely to find him out in the yard climbing a tree or kicking a ball, than parked in front of a screen. I highly doubt he’ll be in ‘eating disorders’ territory at any time in the future.

  • Lea May 28, 2013, 4:29 pm

    Great article! I’m just starting to become aware of everything I eat and reading ingredient lists and like you said: SOLE. I came across your website in my search for information. Very helpful reading for someone like me! Thank you :)

    One thing though, there’s a typo on “Harvard School of Public Health” – it says “pubic”! Gave me a giggle ;)

    • Christina May 28, 2013, 4:57 pm

      Lea: Ack! Worst nightmare typo ever! Just changed it, so thanks for telling me. For as often as this post has been read/shared, I can’t believe no one else said anything! :-)

      • Lea May 28, 2013, 7:39 pm

        Haha glad I could help :)

  • MaryPat December 2, 2013, 8:42 am

    I just had to come back and re-read this post….Last night, I found out that my 10 yr old daughter had eaten almost all of her halloween candy! I’m pretty devastated, for a variety of reasons. First, because we try SO hard to educate her & her older sister about WHY we want them to eat “better,” read labels, make LOTS of homemade things, including sweets! I’m disappointed in myself because for whatever reason, laziness, forgetfulness, I never got around to the “sort and toss” with her after halloween. Another thing I’m upset about is that she would sneak behind my back…I just don’t know how to handle this! I talked with her briefly, trying not to come down on her too hard, but I’d appreciate any advice on how to handle this! Ugh, now we have a candy-filled advent calendar, “thanks” to Grandma :/ that I’m seriously considering not letting her do!

    • Christina December 2, 2013, 10:53 am

      MaryPat: I’d actually address it more from the sneaking aspect than from the food aspect, especially if there was lying involved. It sounds like she’s been eating it gradually since Halloween, right? (As opposed to eating it all in one sitting.) So I don’t think that in itself is so awful. Would I rather kids not eat this stuff at all? Sure. But I recognize that some of it holds appeal/tastes good, and so it can be tempting if it’s around. But you can/should certainly talk to her about the dishonesty, just as you would if she’d been dishonest about anything else. In the course of that, you might ask whether she enjoyed the candy, how it tasted and made her feel. I’m guessing she might come to her own realization that the stuff wasn’t all that good. But, if not, I’d let it go and just continue offering other opportunities for more wholesome sweets. As for the advent calendar, I’d actually ask the kids what they think — whether they think the candy is a good idea (especially after all that Halloween candy and the holiday sweets to come…) or whether they’d like a different advent calendar instead. Again, just a guess, but I’m thinking they might choose an alternative. Kids very often make the right choice if they feel they *have* a choice. I hope this makes sense, and I hope this has helped somewhat. Please do keep me posted!

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