This is Part 1 of a collection of posts used to help write my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater
Long before having children, I knew I wanted to raise not just a healthy eater, but an intuitive one. A child turned adult, who uses internal cues to guide eating and chooses healthy food as much for pleasure as for health. What I didn’t expect were the difficulties that would arise on this journey.
But buried behind each barrier of raising an intuitive eater is a larger-than-life benefit. When you focus on the benefits, you won’t be able to imagine feeding your child any other way.
But first, what is an intuitive eater?
Based on Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s (authors of Intuitive Eating) 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, Tracy Tylka developed an intuitive eating scale (IE scale) to spearhead research in this area. In this study which defines the scale, Tylka defines intuitive eating:
Individuals who eat intuitively are not preoccupied with food or dieting and do not label certain foods as “good” or “bad.” Although taste is important, they often choose foods for the purpose of enhancing their body’s functioning. They are aware of and trust their body’s internal hunger and satiety cues and use these cues to determine when and how much to eat.
There are three key domains that encompass Intuitive Eating described in the chart below. The last column relates these domains back to parental feeding practices.
So with this in mind, here are common barriers and benefits of raising intuitive eaters.
Barrier#1: Kids do not always eat the way you want them to eat.
When kids are picky or slow to accept new and healthy foods, following DOR can be tough. And when you see other parents telling their kids what and how much to eat — and children follow suit — you can begin to question it all.
Benefit: When you don’t interfere with your child’s eating, you get an honest snapshot of what they enjoy and choose from at the table. This information helps you find different ways to cook, expose, and present and talk about food so children can gradually eat more and different things on their own. Think of it as guiding a child instead of controlling them.
Barrier#2: It’s tempting to use food as a parenting tool.
On Yummy Mummy Club, dietitian Sarah Remmer wrote about why parents should avoid using food as a parenting tool. It can be hard to resist this because, well, food works. Promising a favorite food for good behavior or taking away gets kids to behave the way you want them to.
Benefit: A 2015 study in The American Journal of Nutrition gets to why this is inconsistent with intuitive eating: kids may be more likely to eat in response to uncomfortable emotions. Young children (5-7) made to feel mildly upset (told they would not get a toy as promised) ate more snack foods when they had parents who used food as a reward or restricted their intake due to health reasons when they were 3-5 years old.
When you notice your child eats for enjoyment and hunger and not for “being good” or to cover up uncomfortable feelings, avoiding the food-parenting tool trap becomes a no-brainer.
Barrier #3. The amount children eat won’t always sit well with you.
It can be hard to accept how much a child eats especially when they are smaller or larger than average. But let’s be honest, this can be challenging with any child! Many parents want to avoid kids being hungry at inopportune times or they simply can’t handle their eating a good amount of sweets…ever!
Benefit: When you consistently offer food and allow kids to decide how much to eat, you will be amazed at how well they can regulate their food intake (the key word is consistent). One study using the IE scale with middle school children found those who scored high on intuitive eating had lower BMIs, less body dissatisfaction and pressure to be thin and were more likely to be satisfied with life. For more on the research on intuitive eating, go here.
If you are worried about your child’s size, check their growth chart. If they have consistently fallen on the smaller or larger percentiles every year then trying to change that trajectory will be an uphill battle. But if there are jumps in either direction, it may be time to get help from a pediatric dietitian.
Barrier #4. It may go against how you feed yourself.
In a study published in Clinical Pediatrics, mothers of 2 to 5-year-olds who relied on their own internal hunger and fullness cues to eat were more likely to allow kids to do the same. If intuitive eating is not consistent with the way you eat, it can be challenging to allow your kids to eat that way.
Benefit: When this challenge arises, it can open up a whole new way of eating for you. In Fearless Feeding, Michelle May details how her children inspired her to change her relationship with food:
Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, was an overweight child, dieted young and struggled with food and eating into adulthood. She watched in amazement as her husband and two kids were able to regulate their intake with ease and not obsess about food. This inspired her to drop the dieting and trust herself with eating (what she calls getting back to “instinctive eating.” This approach was so freeing and effective that she dedicated her career to helping others do the same.
Barrier #5. You will feel different in the way you feed.
There’s little doubt that raising an intuitive eater will make you feel like the odd person out at times. You may get glaring looks from other parents or family members. Or you may start questioning yourself like in barrier number 1.
Benefit: This barrier is really a benefit in disguise. The reason you feel different is that you’re trying to raise a child who eats differently. That’s a good thing right? While I hope that someday more people are aware of the benefits of raising an intuitive eater, it’s still not typical. Society is still more focused on what to feed kids than how.
So tell me, what are your obstacles to raising an intuitive eater? Any you have overcome?
How to Raise a Mindful Eater Post Series
1. Obstacles and Benefits to Raising Intuitive/Mindful Eaters
2. The Importance of Self-regulation and Stress Management [Next]
3. Myths About Food Addiction That Keep it Alive
4. The Real Reason Children Crave Carbs
5. The Power of Paying Attention at Meals
6. How to Build Your Child’s Self-Control Muscle
7. How to Keep the Weight-Obsessed Culture from Harming Your Child’s Relationship with Food
8. My New Book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater
Want this series plus more content, expert interviews, and stories? Check out How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food