I haven’t been shy in writing about my battles with restrictive and then emotional eating. Going through some hardships with food on both ends of the eating spectrum has taught me a heck of a lot. I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason and my experiences with food has been to learn more about the relationship between food and emotions. And I have.
Immersing myself in books, literature and reflecting on my own experiences- parents play such an important role in the messages children receive about food and their bodies. And personally speaking my difficulties relating to food can definitely be traced back to my childhood (as is the case with many people with disordered eating)
For as long as I can remember, food has always been a much loved- yet- emotive topic in my family (which goes without saying given my heritage is Italian!). I remember a typical dinner involving my mum spending the better part of a day in the kitchen, preparing a 3 course meal (I know right?!). When it came to dinner she (obviously) took great pleasure plating the meals, piling the plates high with food. I later came to see this as her sign of showing her love for us.
I learned quickly that being full didn’t really matter when it came to eating- that my job was to eat everything so my mother felt appreciated and we didn’t waste money throwing out perfectly good food. Essentially I learned to clear my plate and to over eat. Food become woven into an emotional web: validating I cared for someone, that some cared for me and that eating made other people happy (….to name a few).
Overeating and binding food with emotions extended itself into my adulthood, looking a bit like this:
+ I would pile people plates high with food when cooking for others to show I was nurturing, validating my sense of worth (I could cook, and cook well so eat up!)
+ I would eat to escape feelings of discomfort, loneliness, happiness, boredom, irrespective of whether I was hungry or not. Read: A lot of eating in bed, standing at the fridge and in front of the tv
+ I would find it difficult, if not impossible to know when to stop eating. I would wind up with a sore stomach, having to unbutton my jeans and curse myself (often deprive myself thereafter) for over eating.
+ I chose to eat foods that provided me with something in my life that was missing. Foods filled a gap in my life. For example I would eat a big stew if I needed warmth, or chocolate for sweetness and kindness. Importantly food was not chosen because I wanted it but rather needed it.
To some degree I will always have issues separating food and emotions, however I have trialled many strategies to help me become more mindful about when, what and how I eat alongside how I feel at that given moment. And these tips I truly believe are what are so important to teach your children.
Truly nurturing our bodies and our mind requires presence and awareness. Eating should be enjoyable- not bound with guilt, regret and punishment. It should not determine how happy you feel about yourself today or how worthless you feel you are (because you ate chocolate, for example). While it pains me to see children being rewarded for good behaviour with junk food and lollies, it also pains me to see children starving themselves because of some promise that their body weight determines their value in society.
If I could talk to you personally about each and every one of your children, I would say:
1. Teach your child to eat when hungry. Teach your child what hunger feels like versus eating because they are needing to fill a gap (e.g. boredom, loneliness, sadness). Help them to notice the bodily sensations that suggest they are hungry.
2. Honour your children’s bodies. Allow them to know what they truly want to eat and what will satisfy them. Let them have a say about what they would like for dinner, trusting that they know what their bodies need.
3. Focus on eating and only eating at mealtimes. Discussing trials and tribulations at the dinner table can certianly be one way of helping children create an association between emotions and eating. The important role when eating is to truly sit down and be present with your food. Busying eating with conversation is an easy way to overeat (try it yourself).
4. Let them leave food on their plate. Teach your children what it means to be satisfied- not stuffed. Talk to them about the bodily sensations that indicate they are getting full. Little babies more often than not let us know by pushing food away when they are finished. Help your child to re-tune back into this intuition of infancy.
5. Establish a free night once per week when your child can eat whatever they want for dinner… which may include lollies and ice cream. Allowing your children to throw away the rules encourages your children to understand that it is ok to indulge in ‘sometimes’ food. It’s normal in fact. Banning food, or placing rules and restrictions on what they can eat and when without some leniency is one way to encourage binge eating (whether in front of you or behind your back).
6. Let your child have some control about how much food you put on their plate. Trust that they know what is appropriate for where they are currently at, whether it be food acceptance and/or hunger.
I hope this article has resonated with you in some way. If you have friends who will benefit from reading this post I would do backward flips knowing this information is being shared. Questions and comments? Let’s start a heart sparking conversation below.
Images via: @busydads, @kiras_wholesomekitchen