Welcome to Ask A Dietitian, a series where Yahoo Canada digs into food trends and popular nutrition questions with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
In a world dominated by diet culture and societal pressures, fostering a positive relationship with food in children is crucial for their mental and physical well-being.
Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian and a mother herself, gave Yahoo Canada the scoop on recognizing signs of an unhealthy relationship with food in children.
Parents: Read on for everything you need to know about navigating these sensitive conversations with your kids.
What does a healthy relationship with food look like?
A healthy relationship with food is going to look different for everyone, Sharp explained.
Essentially, for both youth and adults, it's about "respecting your body's needs" and "honouring your hunger and fullness cues."
In short, it's really about acknowledging food as a source of energy, nourishment and pleasure.
The expert dietitian highlighted several warning signs that may indicate an unhealthy relationship with food in children or teenagers. These include:
assigning moral worth to foods ("bad" versus "good" food)
displaying anxiety or tantrums around certain meals
refusing to eat foods they once loved
imposing strict rules around food and exercise.
She said parents should be vigilant for these signals, including kids saying things like "I've already eaten," "I'm not hungry" or "I'm gonna go upstairs, I'll eat later." Another sign is rewarding themselves with food after, for example, hitting 10,000 steps.
Early intervention is key to preventing the development of more severe issues.
What are the consequences of eating disorders and poor nutrition?
According to Sharp, severe malnutrition due to dieting can ultimately do a lot of long-term harm.
"Childhood and adolescence are really an integral time period for all types of growth and development," she explained.
The risks range from increased risks of osteoporosis and anemia, to hormonal imbalances and poor cognitive performance.
"And of course, there's the stark increase in risk of eating disorders and even obesity later on in life."
Understanding these potential outcomes reinforces the urgency of addressing and correcting negative relationships with food early on.
How can parents help kids build a positive relationship with food?
As parents are the child's first and main role models, Sharp said what's really important is to not talk about your weight, or others' bodies in a negative way.
She acknowledged how hard this can be. "We live breathe, die by diet culture. But it's so, so important, especially in the presence of your kids, that you're talking about your body in a positive or neutral way."
Don't talk about your weight, or others' weights or bodies in a negative way.
Sharp also suggested adopting a "division of responsibility in feeding" approach. This means parents provide the what, when and where of food, while children decide how much to eat. That approach fosters autonomy and helps children develop a healthy relationship with food without pressure or judgment.
Additionally, Sharp advised against using moral language around food, encouraging parents to avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad."
Instead, she recommended focusing on the nutritional benefits of different foods and discussing how they make the body feel.
"We really want to just call it what it is. So broccoli is broccoli, candy is candy — everything can fit in a balanced diet."
As the primary role models, Sharp said it's important for parents to show themselves eating nutritious food and less nutritious foods and sweets in moderation, "and not making a big deal of it."
What can parents do about social media and peer pressure?
In a society where dieting and wellness influencers saturate social media, parents face the challenge of countering negative influences.
Sharp emphasized the importance of family meals as an opportunity to discuss positive, morally neutral beliefs around food. Open conversations about fat shaming, body expectations, and the unrealistic portrayals on social media can provide a counterbalance to external pressures.
Peers are always going to have a significant role in teens beliefs, but we can continue to reinforce his balance, non restrictive eating at home.
Parents are encouraged to share their personal journeys with food, including learning from their mistakes. Making that connection early on can open up trust between the child and parent.
"It's really important to have open conversations and discussions with your kids about food and bodies, discussing fat shaming or body expectations from social media and celebrity culture," Sharp claimed.
If parents do see some red flags in their kids around eating, Sharp advises to "keep an eye open for any of these hints and body image issues, food hoarding, secretly eating." She added, "it's a lot easier to catch these things and intervene earlier on than when they become a full blown eating disorder."
In the meantime, spending as much quality time around food is the best way to teach those balanced, neutral, food-positive messages.