Published on Monday, December 4, 2023
By Laura Needham,
Grey Bruce Health Unit
December, for many in Grey-Bruce, marks the return of the holiday season.
This is often a time of year when we gather with those we care about, surrounded by an array of foods.
These festive foods are central to many traditions, but do they negatively impact our overall health?
Canada’s Food Guide recommends enjoying our food and eating with others. Many parents, however, worry that the holidays will derail their efforts to plan, prepare, and serve their families nutritious meals and snacks. Many may ask, what are the lifelong health impacts?
Certainly, food contributes to our health and well-being in many ways. The nutrients in food give our bodies the building blocks they need to grow, develop, and thrive. Both physical and mental health can be affected by the nutrients we need in food over time. However, food is more than nutrients and health is more than the absence of disease.
Through our food, we can build or maintain connections to others, share traditions and culture, protect our environment, and express our creativity.
These connections with loved ones, culture, and environment also support our physical, mental, and social well-being.
Diet culture has led us to believe that our food traditions and celebrations are a danger to our well-being rather than a support.
This season, I encourage all parents and caregivers to consider their family’s relationship with food and gift their child with the skills for building a positive relationship with food.
NUTRIENTS & CONNECTIONS
Holiday food traditions provide us with nutrients and connections.
Many traditional foods may be high in sugar or saturated fat. Diet culture is a system of beliefs that teaches us that some body sizes are more worthy than others and that health may only be achieved through restriction. It also teaches us that weight is the best indicator of health and good character. Sharing food traditions without guilt or labels is one way families can combat diet culture and promote healthy relationships with food.
The holidays are a perfect time to invite kids into the kitchen to help cook and bake, teach them food skills, and family traditions. Kids of all ages can help with a variety of tasks in the kitchen. Young children can safely help wash fresh produce or sort ingredients. As they grow, adults can introduce new skills like measuring, mixing, counting, reading recipes, and cutting or chopping foods. With each new skill, your child’s confidence and comfort in the kitchen can grow. Creating these positive moments around food will help build their resilience and support their mental well-being now and in the future.
Being aware of the messages kids hear about food is also critical to establishing a healthy relationship with food. It is easy for us all to fall into a habit of labelling food as healthy or unhealthy, good or bad, or speaking about needing to ‘work off’ a meal. Instead, try to role model mindful eating and positive food-talk. Avoiding value statements (eg. healthy, junk, treat) will prevent picky eating since food will no longer be seen as a reward or punishment. When you speak about food, focus on its characteristics like taste, texture, colour, or cultural uses. Some foods may be bright and colourful, others may sweet, salty, or crunchy. By encouraging children to explore the various tastes and textures of food, you are building their food literacy and preventing picky eating. To encourage positive mealtimes, you can ask them to help plan or prepare their meals and snacks. Sometimes, simply asking, “would you rather have beans or broccoli at dinner today” can make all the difference for a peaceful mealtime.
ENCOURAGE POSITIVE MEALTIMES
When food is just food, meal times can respect the Division of Responsibility as recommended by experts. Parents can focus on offering a variety of foods, where and when it is appropriate. Allow your child to learn to listen to their body’s hunger and fullness cues by respecting their responsibility to choose whether and how much to eat. If they choose not to eat a certain item, do not worry and avoid pressuring them. Instead of commenting on their food choices, share how you are enjoying your meal or ask if they would like to save part of their meal for later. If it is something they are not interested in eating, do not make a replacement. Remember, it is your responsibility to choose what is served and theirs to choose how much to eat. Often parents who are new to this approach are concerned that their child will skip dinner and only eat dessert. There are a few ways to manage this. Consider serving dessert with dinner – whether your dessert is some fruit or ice cream, serving it at the same time will keep it from becoming a reward for finishing dinner. If they finish their dessert before eating their dinner that is okay, when they are still hungry they can return to their dinner. Second servings do not have to be available for all foods.
Most children will start hearing messages about food and health very early in life. When asked about the health impacts of certain foods, tailor your comments to your child’s age, but continue to avoid value- labels. For example, you may tell a young child that carrots and other bright orange vegetables help our eyes see in the dark. As they get older, you can explore the names and benefits of different nutrients like Vitamin A. All foods contribute to our nutritional intake. Protein foods like eggs, meat, fish, beans, and milk help our muscles and make us feel full until our next meal or snack. Sugary foods provide fast energy, when we have protein foods with sugary foods, we get the energy we need and we will stay full until our next meal or snack.
DISCUSS DIET MESSAGING WITH YOUR CHILD
Talk to your kids about the weight and diet messaging they see and hear.
Help them be aware of how social media and marketing is used to make them want to eat certain foods and look a certain way. Explain that this is about making money and is not about what is best for our bodies or our mental well-being. Help them learn from their positive food experiences rather than these messages. The best way to decrease the influence of food marketing is to reduce our exposure, but it is not possible to avoid it entirely.
Marketing exists in print ads, food packaging, and billboards. It is hidden in product placement, social media influencers and pop-up ads. Reducing screen time can minimize our exposure and reading food labels can help cut through marketing messages to better understand food products. Remember that food marketing is not limited to telling us what to buy; the diet industry also tells us that we must restrict.
Make sure that you are also having conversations about body diversity. Help kids see that bodies come in many different shapes and sizes and that we cannot know about a person’s behaviours, health, or character based on their appearance. Weight is the top source of bullying. Children need to know that their value is not tied to a body shape or size. Weight bias can be found in all settings including at home, school, and in health care. Try being aware when your child may be hearing judgemental language about body shape or size and counter these messages to prevent unhealthy coping strategies like extreme dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders.
This holiday season share your food traditions and skills without guilt or judgement. All children deserve to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Laying a strong foundation now will nourish their bodies and minds, help them grow resilient to harmful diet culture, and protect their well-being far better than restricting their food choices ever can.
Categories: Your Health, Eating Well
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