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The body image conversation to have with your kids

Time magazine recently published a special edition, Secrets of Weight Loss – A Guide to Practical Living.

It was packed full of amazing stats – mostly depressing (sorry!) – one of which mentioned that over 90 per cent of adult American women are on some kind of diet with a view to changing how they look.

Given that at least two-thirds of these women are overweight, you could argue that this is a good thing from a physical health perspective. But let’s think about it from a mental health perspective. The average person eats between three and six times a day. If your choices each time are influenced by the way you look (and that you don’t look “good enough”), think about how much negativity that brings in. It is a reminder, three to six times a day, that you are not what you “should” or “could” be.

Here's the issue. It is so insanely difficult to consistently make healthy choices in our current food environment. Our biological programming means that we crave energy-dense carbs, that we are able to overeat them and that we’re able to store the excess as fat.

This worked incredibly well when we were hunter-gatherers, swinging between food scarcity and food abundance, but now we live within constant abundance. The sugary and processed junk is at every checkout, every school tuck shop, every vending machine, at almost every event and in almost every home. It’s even in my home!

If you don’t want to socially ostracise your kid there has to be the occasional Oreo – or so the argument goes.

And yet, some people are acing it. They’re fit and thriving in an otherwise unhealthy society. What are they doing differently?

Contrary to the Time title, there are no secrets to weight loss. The ultimate conclusion is that different things work for different people at different times in their lives.

But from observations – not just mine but my peers too – the people that do well are people who 1) have good habits and 2) set up their environment in such a way, that they don’t need to exercise willpower.

When it comes to the first, think about it this way. You don’t have to use willpower to brush your teeth. You do it because you have always done it. As an example, if we can raise children to have a healthy breakfast every day, the likelihood is that they will continue to do it as adults.

It’s one solution to navigating all the junk out there as a parent: give your kids healthy cornerstones that they can come back to. As for the second observation – setting up your environment in such a way that you don’t need to use willpower – it goes beyond having a healthy fridge at home and healthy snacks in your drawer at work. It also means establishing healthy habits as a family (eg long walks at the weekend and always two green veg with dinner) and having a social circle that enjoys healthy living and activities. Want to be healthy? Get healthy friends!

But I have drifted from a focus on weight to a focus on healthy. The two are not necessarily one and the same. It’s perfectly possible to be bigger and healthier than your skinnier friend or sibling (to a point). And it’s a vitally important thing to address.

Over the years, Nutrifit (my six-week programme) morphed from a weight-loss programme into an optimum nutrition programme. Yes, you can lose weight if you want or need to, but it’s all about choosing food that nourishes you with the objective of feeling better every single day. As I grew as a practitioner, woman and mum, so the programme grew too.

Having a tween and a teen has brought this into laser sharp focus recently. My girls have been raised exactly the same but they have very different bodies. Differences in the genetic lottery, taste preferences and exercise habits play a role but you know what – both are beautiful. And it kills me to think that one might think she is “less” than the other because of social conditioning.

I’ve written about body image for women and girls before and it’s something I think about constantly. I’ve had a few anorexic clients over the years and it’s the most incredibly painful and torturous disease to deal with – give me your overweight problems any day! Encouraging my children to be healthy and avoid junk, but not making them fearful of the junk or judged for it, has me walking a very thin line sometimes.

Within the Time feature there was one article that really stood out for me. Written by Shannon Master, it’s called How I Talked to My Daughter – And Myself – About Body Image.

There are plenty of helpful tips: discuss the negative impact body-beauty pressure can have on girls, look at Photoshop examples, share your own feelings of self-doubt, explain that puberty often brings “puppy-fat” which usually becomes redistributed as a girl matures, point out all the amazing things their bodies can do that they enjoy (eg play soccer or swim with friends), remind her of resilience – no one is perfect and that is OK.

But my favourite tip was to have your daughter write down the top ten things she likes about herself – you do this for yourself too!

Then you state the top ten things you love about your daughter, and she then writes them down next to her list (do this vice versa). And then comes the impactful thing. Master says: “After we made our lists, I asked my daughter if any of the things she likes about me would change if my body or appearance changed. I also asked her if any of the things I liked about her would change if her body or appearance changed. The unspoken answer was no. Not one single thing would change. And there it is, the truth of body image, the what-really-matters-is-on-the-inside lesson, fully understood, for both of us.”

The point of writing this isn’t to say, “Screw it, eat what you want!” Rather it’s to make the point that if we have “how we look” rule our every decision about food, then life will be depressing. We’d be better off shifting to a focus of choosing food that nourishes us because it makes us feel better and we enjoy what our bodies can do when they are healthy.

I’d love to think that society as a whole will see and make that shift, but with social media and filters and celebrity ideation still at the core of our context, it’s unlikely. Not to mention the big business, the mega bucks and the political insanity that perpetuate the problem. Meanwhile, protect your daughters (and your sons, I don’t mean to leave them out) and have body image conversations. People who feel happy and more confident about their bodies automatically nurture them more. Maybe there is a secret to weight loss. Maybe it’s that.

Catherine Burns is a qualified nutritional therapist. For more details: www.natural.bm, 505-4725, Natural Nutrition Bermuda on Facebook and @naturalbda on Instagram

People who feel happy and more confident about their bodies automatically nurture them more, says Catherine Burns

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Published November 12, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated November 11, 2021 at 3:14 am)

The body image conversation to have with your kids

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