When I first became a dietitian, I was conflicted about giving out meal plans and weight loss advice. Having changed my relationship with food just before my first job as an RD, I wanted to help others do the same. I turned to research and slowly began to get an inkling as to how to help others. But nothing solidified my understanding more than researching kids’ eating and development.
I learned how a person’s relationship with food starts the day they are born. I was amazed at the developmental changes that take place that leave humans vulnerable in this modern world. Yet despite this information, advice about eating typically boils down to one thing: eat healthy.
Yet in reality, when people experience struggles eating has become dysregulated due to a variety of factors. They can work on food all day long, but it often is not the cause of the problem.
Your Engine: The Eating System
When you take your car into the shop, you expect to get an answer on what exactly is wrong with it. Your car has an engine with many different parts but it’s usually one or two specific things.
Sometimes a part just doesn’t work and other times it’s an outside factor, like if oil wasn’t changed or the lights were left on causing the battery to fail. Either way, there is cause and effect and you are left understanding the problem.
When people have eating challenges, the underlying cause is usually missed. Similar to an engine, a person’s eating system has different parts like food choice, hunger, fullness, appetite and the digestion and absorption of nutrients.
In short, society tends to focus on the effect side of the “cause and effect” equation. A teen thinks she eats too many sweets, so she tries to limit her sugar intake when stress is the real issue. A kid is cautious around new food so his parents’ pressure him to try food even though anxiety is the culprit. An adult gaining weight will start a new diet even though her lack of sleep and activity needs attention.
So, if you have an eating challenge in your family, instead of rushing to food, consider 7 key factors that could be at play. Because if just one of these factors gets off, the whole system is compromised.
Let’s look at each of these, one by one.
1. Fixed Food Mindset
When I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, I immediately made the connection to eating. In her book she discusses the benefits of having a growth mindset, believing intelligence can grow like a muscle. She also describes the detriments of having a fixed mindset, believing intelligence is fixed and can’t be changed.
A fixed mindset is common when it comes to food. We tend to label people like “he doesn’t know what full is” or “she is addicted to sweets” or “he’s a picky eater.” Then we use external control such as food rules, taking away temptations, or pressure, etc., to fix it.
Because this doesn’t address the real issue, the control rules are always needed, taking a huge amount of effort. Like the kid who needs the parent to tell him how much and what to eat or the person that needs to follow diet rules. It’s a drain on the body, mind, and spirit.
If we switch to a growth mindset, we can address the true problem and learn a new way. Another aha was when I interviewed Maia Szalavitz author of Unbroken Brain. She argues that addiction is more of a learning problem than a brain disease.
So, if we desire a different pattern of eating for ourselves or a family member, we can learn it the same way a person can learn to play the piano or tennis. A person’s mindset about food should always be considered first. This opens them up to addressing the real challenge and learning something new.
2. External Food Focus
We all have internal cues of hunger and fullness yet some of us learn to listen to them and others not listen (or something in between). A baby repeatedly pushed to finish her bottle eventually learns to finish the milk, not stop at fullness. If kids are asked to eat more even if they’ve stated they’re full, over time they just automatically eat more. Going on diet after diet, or being restricted as a child, often equates to ignoring (or distrusting) appetite cues.
An external food focus leads to a feeling of helplessness. If a person wants to change, they have to control their environment and portions. Once it gets to be too much, it’s easy to give up and let the environment take over.
But if we can learn an internal food focus we are in control. The term used for infants is responsive feeding, making sure adults feeding babies are responding appropriately to cues of hunger and fullness. Toddlers have slowed growth and are notorious for not wanting to eat, incorporating Satter’s Division of Responsibility can be a lifesaver. Older kids need encouragement to tune into hunger and fullness during meals and a reminder when they are with friends. And with time and patience, adults can learn to intuitively eat.
Identifying external eating is the second-best place to investigate when eating becomes dysregulated.
3. Nutrition Dissatisfaction
For the first two years, babies and young children eat almost everything parents offer. As kids turn 3 or so, they start asking for outside food that goes against the nutrition plan parents have. Sometimes kids can be found fixating on the foods they aren’t allowed to have or start lying to their parents about what they ate somewhere else. Guilt seeps into eating and dysregulated eating can result.
There’s a lot that can disrupt a child’s learning about food. First is a lack of exposure to nutritious foods and adequate time to develop a willingness to eat them. Second is good and bad food thinking (and teaching) which sets up a need-to-choose dynamic with eating. The third is pushing too hard with pressure and even force.
Balancing all foods to maximize nutrition and satisfaction is the antidote. Parents are often surprised to find kids actively choosing nutritious foods out of genuine desire, not an obligation. In one study, people found vegetables were tied to happiness more than sweets. When we don’t create the pressure to choose – and stay positive in food offerings — it’s easier to learn the value many nutrient-dense foods have. The researchers said:
Making people aware of the ‘healthy = happy’ association supported by empirical evidence provides a distinct and novel perspective to the prevailing ‘unhealthy = tasty’ folk intuition and could foster eating choices that increase both in-the-moment happiness and future well-being. Furthermore, the present research lends support to the advocated paradigm shift from “food as health” to “food as well-being” which entails a supporting and encouraging rather constraining and limiting view on eating behavior.
A nutritious diet is important for eating and an unbalanced diet dysregulates it. When this happens, it’s important to investigate where learning about nutrition broke down and why.
4. A Lack of Movement and Sleep
How much the body moves and rests greatly affects the eating system. A body that gets physical activity is more likely to crave nutritious foods, regulate food intake, and have energy. Getting adequate sleep ensures the body recovers and recoups. When this doesn’t happen, studies show the body requires more calories to run and energy-dense items are the perfect solution.
We must always consider moving and resting when eating challenges arise. Yet we need to be careful not to guilt ourselves or our kids into incorporating these important habits. It’s the same as nutrition, we can see how these factors make our lives better and create opportunities to move and routines that promote rest.
It’s not about perfection and some nights it’s just fun to stay up. As some days little movement will happen. But getting these two factors in places positively affects the eating system.
5. Emotional Avoidance
You cannot separate eating from emotions. Food is simply an enjoyable part of life, used to celebrate and at times comfort. Yet true emotional happiness comes from within and being able to feel and respond to a wide range of emotions.
Using food as a means to avoid unpleasant emotions is very common even if it’s just fending off boredom. When internal cues and nutrition satisfaction are in place, kids and adults are less likely to turn to food. Yet using food to reward good behavior or taking it away as a punishment in the growing up years, increases the likelihood of emotional eating.
It’s not just how we deal with food but emotions. Babies need help soothing and develop an attachment with caregivers. And as kids grow, they need help understanding their emotions – and the stress that accumulates with age. When challenges are overcome, the emotional muscle becomes resilient and there is less of a need to avoid or fear emotions.
Emotions (especially stress) always matter when it comes to food, so we should always consider them when problems crop up.
6. Not Considering Development
Humans are not static; they change and grow. This is even more true with kids who are developing at a fast rate. Learning what to expect can help parents from assuming there’s a problem when there’s not. For instance, not knowing kids are biologically driven to prefer sweet tastes or that the girls gain fat during puberty.
It also helps them take advantage of critical nutrition windows of opportunity. For instance, understanding a baby is open and learning about food, puberty is vital for growing strong bones, and midlife is the ideal time to reinvest in physical and emotional health.
A lack of knowledge about development should always be considered when eating challenges come along.
7. Low Body Appreciation
Research over the past 10 years has transformed how we see body image. Prior to this, most studies focused on the detriments of a negative body image. But we now know a positive body image is not simply the absence of a negative body image, it’s something else entirely.
It’s not about loving how your body looks or having zero qualms with its features. But we can learn how to accept, appreciate, and be in tune with its needs. This is what a positive body image is and why it’s linked to better health and well-being.
It’s also important to understand that the body has a genetic blueprint for its general frame and shape. Trying to change this natural tendency can disconnect us from the body and dysregulate eating for life.
When eating challenges come up – especially after puberty — it’s always good to check in with a person’s relationship with their body.
We would never settle for a mechanic giving us vague answers to our car’s engine problem. So, we shouldn’t settle for that when it comes to our family’s health and well-being. We live in a one size fits all nutrition world, but we all not the same and neither is our situation.
It only took twenty-plus years of research and experience to get a clear picture of what can go wrong so I can help people get it right.