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Trust your body, kiddo

#Parenting101: Are your kids intuitive eaters?

What can we do to encourage our children to eat intuitively?

13 Feb 2023
#Parenting101: Are your kids intuitive eaters?

The concept of intuitive eating has been gaining popularity in recent years among adults, but did you know that the principles of intuitive eating can be just as useful for children too?

Just like encouraging a reading habit, or starting financial literacy when the child is at a young age, raising your children to be intuitive eaters can have positive ripple effects throughout their lives. It can teach children to listen to and trust their body’s natural hunger and fullness signals, shaping a healthier relationship with food as they grow up.

What is “intuitive eating”?

So what is “intuitive eating” in the first place? The term “intuitive eating” was formalised in a book published in 1995 by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, with 10 key principles underlying this philosophy. Some examples of these principles include rejecting the diet mentality, honouring your hunger, feeling your fullness, and respecting your body.

Essentially, intuitive eating is the opposite of what traditional diets tell you to do. Where traditional diets are typically all about restriction, whether it’s calories or “bad” foods, intuitive eating encourages you to listen to your body, and trust your body’s natural signals of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Your body’s cues should form the basis that guides your eating choices.

We are all born intuitive eaters, but lose it along the way.

Newborn babies cry when they’re hungry, and stop drinking milk when they’re full. Feeding came innately, according to the body’s hunger and fullness signals. Unfortunately as we age, we may lose this natural ability due to various environmental and social factors. Sometimes food becomes a coping mechanism, and we overeat when we fail to recognise our fullness cues. Other times we ignore our hunger signals, because we are stressed or we believe we should look a certain way.

In this internet age of fad diets, misinformation, and superfood obsession, it is important that we try to preserve this natural instinct in our children for as long as possible so that they can hone in on their body’s unique needs. When they learn to trust their hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues, they can develop a healthier relationship with food throughout their lives.

What can I do to encourage my child to eat intuitively?

1. Respect their appetite

We might have grown up with our parents or caregivers saying things like, “Finish every grain of rice!” or “Don’t waste food!”. While these expressions have their merit, sometimes it may create unnecessary pressure on the child and cause them to overeat. This is one of many instances where a child would ignore their hunger and fullness cues in order to please their caregiver. The reverse can also happen, where the unnecessary pressure causes the child to reject their hunger cues and not eat at all.

Instead, accept that your child may eat more or less than you expected. Your child needs to develop their sense of hunger and fullness, and this will take time and patience. Encourage them to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.

2. Have a structure for mealtimes

At the same time, respecting your child’s appetite does not mean you let them eat all the sweets and desserts they want all the time. As the parent or caregiver, it is your responsibility to handle what you offer your child to eat, when you offer it, and where you offer it. However, it is not your responsibility to control how much your child will eat, or whether they will eat at all. Children don’t yet understand concepts of nutrition and a balanced diet, so they will need some kind of structure that you as the caregiver should provide.

Creating mealtime boundaries is one way to establish structure around the times of day that children can expect to eat. Make mealtimes a pleasant experience, perhaps by involving your child in preparing the meals or the table. Taking the pressure away from eating by focusing on the experience of eating together as a family can create positive associations around mealtimes.

3. Have a variety of foods

At every mealtime, try to offer one or two options that you know your child will like, so that you won’t have to worry about them not eating enough or getting enough of their essential nutrients.

At the same time, you can use this opportunity to introduce your child to different foods to expand their palate, but without pressuring them to try it if they are unwilling. Try to use different adjectives when describing food, such as “crunchy” or “tangy”, rather than “delicious” or “healthy”. This can teach children more about the texture and flavour of food, rather than just focusing on its taste or nutritional benefit.

4. Encourage food neutrality

Getting children to eat their vegetables can seem like an uphill battle when they seem to reject anything that looks green on their plate. And so we try to reason with them that vegetables are “good”, and the desserts that they like are actually “bad”. But that won’t stop our kids from craving sweets and desserts, and may inadvertently cause them to binge eat if they get the chance. Likewise, avoid using food as a reward or punishment, such as offering cookies if they do their homework or chores.

When you teach children that no food is inherently all “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, it puts all food on an equal playing field. All foods can be part of a balanced diet if taken in moderation. This may prevent disordered eating patterns like restrictive eating or binge eating.

5. Be a role model

Children imitate what they see, and if they observe their caregiver enjoying their food without guilt, shame, or stress, they will likely follow suit. Parents and caregivers may want to lead by example to nurture a healthy mindset and attitude towards food in their children.

Growing up, we may not have had the best of attitudes towards food due to various influences like diet culture, peer pressure, and conflicting information from the media about nutrition. But in order to be an example for our children, we will have to be kind to ourselves and practise self-compassion. Assess your own personal relationship to food, and see where you can improve so as to be a good role model to your kids.

Every child will have different preferences.

Like everything else in life from hobbies to life goals, your children ultimately may have diet and food preferences that are different from yours. As a caregiver, your goal can be to create the conditions needed to allow them to discover these preferences and celebrate the foods that they enjoy.

At the same time, it is important that we balance this with an attention to our children’s nutritional needs as well. Poor diet, or a diet that lacks one or more nutrients, can impair the production and activity of immune cells and antibodies (Harvard). Younger children below the age of five generally have less antibodies and their immune systems are not as strong. This is why they are more susceptible to viral infections like HFMD.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute providing medical advice or professional services.


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