A few years ago my daughter, who was 7 at the time, came home from school telling me all about how she had a guest speaker talking to her class about eating healthy. As a dietitian and lover of food, I was totally intrigued about what she had learned. She told me all about fruits and vegetables being healthy, eating different colors to get different vitamins but then the conversation took a dark turn in which she proceeded to educate me on the dangers of sugar and how "bad" it was for you. It was right after that my daughter started asking "is this food healthy?" or "Will this chocolate milk, with sugar, hurt my body?" I could see the fear building related to her food choices. It was then I knew I needed to do some damage control. The thing was she, like many of us adults, view healthy as "good" so that must mean unhealthy is "bad." This puts a moralistic view on food and ultimately leads to fear and guilt when we eat foods that we feel are bad. We are actually telling ourselves "when I eat that food that I believe is bad then I am actually bad for eating it." This leads to more intense feelings of guilt and shame, with the dieter trying to restrict those foods. This can lead to uncontrollable cravings, a negative relationship with food and even binge eating.
In the weeks following the conversation with my daughter, I started talking about our food as our energy source and how some foods have energy that help us stay in happier moods, help our brains to be good thinkers, make us run faster and longer and help our bodies to grow. We talked about the benefits of eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins and all the different fats that help our hearts. We discussed how some foods don't necessarily help the body, but we enjoy their taste and textures and that it is good to enjoy these foods accompanied with all the other foods that give us energy. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Registered Dietitians and authors of Intuitive Eating, recommend calling these foods "play foods" and not "junk food" "because that implies that they serve no purpose and could elicit shame for eating something of no value." The explanation to why they use this term is that our children don't go to school all year long without weekends or breaks, they also don't play all year long without going to school. Children will understand that they need nutritious foods to grow and have energy but it is also good to include, and not overvalue, play foods. My daughter and I also discussed how important it was to know when her body needed energy refilling and talked about how her body showed her signs of hunger. We spoke about how comfortable fullness felt; an important concept so that she doesn't under-eat (making her feel tired and unable to concentrate) or overeat and feel sick to her stomach (making her feel sluggish at school or at play).
Now, a few years later, I am able to see the fruits of these conversations, pun totally intended! I see that she enjoys all types of foods and most importantly sees that her food is to be enjoyed without fear, guilt or shame. I have seen her choose fruits for dessert sometimes and choose to eat vegetables because she was craving them. I have seen her eat a few bites of her favorite ice cream and push it away because she was comfortably full and didn't want to get a tummy ache. She continues to learn and trust her body to know when to eat and when to stop eating, and she views her food as providing her body the nutrition and energy that it needs. So, let's leave the term healthy at the door and let's encourage our children to see their food choices in a way that builds a positive relationship with food for years to come.