Mothers and daughters: How to be a healthy eating role model
Health psychologist Iris Fontanilla shines a light on mistakes mothers make – sometimes without realising – which can create potential health minefields for their daughters
The word ‘battlefield’ might come to mind when you think about the complex relationship women often have with food, healthy eating patterns and positive body images. Since the late 1960s, society has associated thinness with beauty, and research shows that girls as young as five years’ old know what dieting is – a concept they learn from observing their mother’s dieting efforts. Many of us are battle-scarred from the skirmishes we have had with food, weight and body image. So how do we ensure our daughters avoid these same battles?
Negative self-talk (spoken and unspoken)
How many times have you worried that your appearance, shape or weight wasn’t satisfactory? You’re not alone – body image, and its intrinsic link to self-esteem, has been a hot topic for decades.
Research shows that the majority of Australian women are not satisfied with their appearance. The less happy you are with your figure, the more likely it is that you regularly engage in ‘negative self-talk’ about your body.
Unfortunately, studies show that your attitude can be picked up by the impressionable young minds around you. It’s been found that humans tend to imitate the people they like and admire, so it’s no surprise that children absorb – and consequently reflect back – the negative and critical statements we make, or behaviour we exhibit, in relation to our eating habits and body image.
Mothers in particular are considered to be influential on their children’s attitudes to food, because they are often in charge of food preparation and meal times. While both sons and daughters can learn to adopt the attitude of their mother, studies show daughters in particular are at risk of this, as children and adolescents tend to identify more strongly with their same-sex parent.
Plan of attack
The good news is children can pick up positive attitudes just as easily as negative ones – so start consciously replacing your negative self-talk with a realistic, more positive attitude towards food and weight and they will follow suit.
Instead of pointing out the things you don’t like about your body, identify the aspects of yourself you do like, such as your eyes and hair. Better yet, focus on your attributes and strengths, rather than your physical characteristics – this will teach them to do the same.
If you do feel the urge to vent to friends, try to limit the negative self-talk and make sure your children are not within earshot.
Dieting and food restriction
The eating behaviour children and adolescents adopt when they are young can stick with them throughout their life. Research suggests a mother’s comments about weight are markedly associated with her child’s concerns about gaining weight and the frequency of trying to lose weight.
Mothers are in an enviable position to ensure their daughters grow up with good eating habits, self-esteem and positive body image. A large-scale study of over 5300 adolescent girls found that girls’ desire to be thin or lose weight was based in part on their perception of what their mothers wanted for them. It comes as no surprise that girls in this study were more likely to engage in dieting behaviours if their mother had done so previously.
Plan of attack
Make time to have regular meals around the table together, rather than in front of the TV . Research shows parents who do this raise children with higher self-esteem and a healthier diet; two very important factors in maintaining healthy eating habits and a healthy weight for life.
Focus on healthy lifestyle habits. Make healthy eating and regular physical activity simply a part of having a good quality of life, rather than seeing them as strategies for weight loss.
Model healthy eating practices for your children. For example, make sure you eat a healthy breakfast and leave fad diets where they belong – in the past!
Try not to talk about ‘dieting’ with your daughter. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of maintaining a healthy weight range (less health risks, higher energy levels, lower risk of certain diseases and so on).
The power struggle and the critical parent
If you face a daily power struggle over food and weight issues with your daughter, particularly if she’s in her teenage years, you’re not alone – this is a very common situation. However, while you have your daughter’s best interests at heart, she may interpret your well-meaning advice as criticism.
Research indicates that mothers who encourage their daughters to lose weight and criticise their figures have been linked to their daughters’ level of restrained eating. Girls with a high body mass index (BMI) who were told by their mother that they were ‘too fat’ were also more likely to be constant dieters – and, as many of us know all too well from personal experience, dieting can actually cause weight gain.
Plan of attack
Avoid commenting on your daughter’s weight, even if it’s well-intentioned. You’re better off focusing on providing a supportive and accepting environment for her instead. Childhood and adolescence are the times when your daughter is trying to figure out her identity and her own place in the world. Communicate that your acceptance of her is not dependent on her weight to help provide a positive environment.
Serve meals and snacks in a relaxed atmosphere. Rather than ‘banning’ treat foods and drinks, aim to provide healthy food options and snacks, and keep treats for special occasions. If it helps, you might want to schedule in an occasion for a ‘treat’ food once or twice a week.
Take your daughter grocery shopping with you, or better yet, involve her in food preparation. This will help her feel that her food preferences and opinions matter, which, in turn, will help her feel empowered. You will bypass power struggles over food and weight in no time by encouraging open discussions (and positive feedback) about her healthy food choices.
Research has found that teens tend to make healthier food choices (e.g. fruits and vegetables over sweets) when parents have established these foods as part of their ‘household eating rules.’ Let your daughter regulate her own food intake. Most children will eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
Remember, losing control of your emotions may cause rebellion, risk-taking behaviours and feelings of guilt, unhappiness, resentment and anger in most teens, so try constructive feedback and encourage an honest dialogue, instead of criticising.
Food as an emotional crutch
We often link certain emotions and events with food: cake with birthdays, lollies with doctor’s visits and icecream for sore throats or broken hearts. So it’s little surprise that many of us have used emotional eating to cope with life’s stresses at one time or another.
Unfortunately, if you turn to food to deal with your emotions, your daughter may learn to cope with life in a similar manner. By eating, rather than feeling, we fail to fully deal with the emotions life throws at us. Instead of dealing with the underlying cause of the emotion, eating leaves its mark on our physical, and possibly our emotional, health. And when that underlying cause rears its head again, that third (or tenth) biscuit won’t help resolve the problem.
Plan of attack
Teach your daughter how to engage in active problem solving, so she has alternative ways of coping. The first step in problem solving involves identifying the problem. Then, sit with your daughter to brainstorm as many ideas/solutions as possible (do not censor any ideas at this point), and discuss the pros and cons of each idea. Once you have established a potential solution which has the most benefits, it is time to take action and implement the solution. The final step is to review the results or outcomes.
Encourage her to engage in fun relaxation activities such as yoga, meditation, breathing techniques or exercise to dampen the effects of the ‘fight or flight’ response we all experience when we feel distressed. These, and other stress busters, can go a long way towards reducing emotional eating.
Issues surrounding food and eating behaviours may be a symptom of a mental health condition. If you suspect your daughter is exhibiting symptoms of depression, anxiety or an eating disorder, consult with your GP or a psychologist for assistance.
Skinny = beauty and success
Society and cultural practices continue to put undue pressure on women to be thin. We are bombarded by messages across all forms of media about the importance of being skinny. Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to these unrealistic expectations, as their direct (and indirect) message that being slim can equates to success, popularity, love and happiness. These ideals are not only unrealistic, but research shows that they may contribute to the development of eating disorders.
Plan of attack
Encourage your daughter to express her feelings and concerns directly. Be an active listener – don’t interrupt, even if you feel the urge to do so.
Talk openly with your daughter about different body types, body shapes and the role of genetics.
Provide reassurance and compliment your daughter’s strengths and skills rather than her figure and physical attributes. Build up her self-esteem by supporting her hobbies and interests. These are helpful distractions against the unrealistic idea that success is only measured by beauty, rather than talent and intelligence. Get your daughter to identify sporting or professional role models who are known for their talents, strengths and skills, as opposed to their dress size.
Finally, be a role model for healthy lifestyle habits, such as healthy eating and activities. Demonstrate a realistic selfimage of yourself and others for your daughter to emulate.
What about my son?
Daughters may be at particular risk of being influenced by their mother’s attitude towards food, but, of course, sons can be affected too. Children flourish best in a loving and supportive environment, so the advice we’ve presented here is relevant regardless of your child’s gender.
Research does show however that children tend to identify more strongly with their same-sex parent, so if you’re particularly concerned about your son, it might be worthwhile to make a point of sharing this article with the men in your household.
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