Body Image Workshop Part 4: Are we trying to raise HEALTHY kids or just skinny ones?

By: Marci Warhaft-Nadler, Fit vs Fiction

From Fit vs Fiction

As parents, it is our responsibility to guide our children through life’s many obstacles. We encourage, instruct, advise, and help them make, what we feel, are the “right” decisions in day to day life. We want to give our kids the tools they need for success. However, I strongly believe that when it comes to their bodies and their health, we could actually learn more from them than the other way around.

These days, we hear constant messages about the fact that our kids are apparently eating too much and exercising too little. We’re told that there are more overweight kids than ever and “Junk Food” is killing them slowly. As a result, too many parents have started stressing over every bite of food their child takes and every minute of TV they watch. Interestingly, this type of stress is actually more dangerous than a few Oreos or video games.

Research shows that putting too much of an emphasis on food and weight will not encourage healthy eating but may initiate a preoccupation with body image. In fact, a journal published by the American Academy of  Pediatrics found that “Anti-Obesity campaigns, though positive in intention, may enable unhealthy dieting and compulsive exercise, while breaking down self-esteem by tying self-worth to weight”.

Believe it or not, this is an area where we could learn a lot from our kids. Our bodies are amazing machines that let us know when we’re hungry and when we’re full. Newborn babies, for example, will cry when hungry and stop eating when they’ve had enough. Sadly, at some point we start judging our bodies instead of listening to them and put ourselves on restrictive diets where we eat only as much as we think we “should” eat and only foods we think we “should” eat. This throws our systems completely off track and creates a relationship with food that is less than harmonious.

Kids are different. They haven’t been manipulated by years of diet propaganda and shouldn’t be thinking about calories or fat grams. Is there an insane amount of fast food and candy out there? Of course, but if we demonize certain foods, it creates emotion around them. These sinful foods either become terrifying or even more attractive. Food is food. Some of it nourishes us; some of it just tastes good. None of it needs to be BANNED completely. It’s about balance.

Eating should always be a positive experience. Feel free to introduce new foods to mealtimes, have your kids prepare meals with you, and offer a wide variety of tastes and textures. Truth be told, exposing your kids to food in a healthy way will not make them overweight….but hiding it from them just might.

(Originally posted here.)


Melissa here!

So how do we strike that balance, enjoy some sweet treat foods while still teaching our kids to eat healthy, and not fat shame or hate how they look? We lead by example. In this article, a statement that three year olds are aware of and conscious of their weight is startling, but doesn’t knock me off my chair in shock. We are a culture obsessed with appearance. Of course our kids, epescially the sponge-like little ones, pick up on that.

What if instead we became a culture obsessed with living life to the fullest, and being grateful for all we have? Now that would be a party.

“We come in a diversity of shapes and sizes. Enjoy your body, enjoy physical movement, eat tasty and good-for-you food and celebrate the fact that you are alive.”

-Amy Farrell, Dickinson College professor and author of “Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture.”

Need more help? I really like and use this website for my family:


  1. We emphasize the healthy or unhealthiness of food. So, although having something sweet is a nice treat, every day can cause future illness. We don’t have cable; so, the kids aren’t bombarded with advertisements. I think that helps. And, when my daughter is hungry, I start suggesting quick healthy snacks, carrot, banana, apple, some yogurt. I think discussing why we don’t buy things [not that cereal because it’s mainly sugar with food coloring] without lecturing about it seems to be working.

    • We do the same at our house, and when we’re eating healthy food, we tell the kids why. Like, “I’m going to chop up some carrots to toss in the burritos for extra veggies and because the vitamins make my eyes so bright” or “This peanut butter banana is going to keep me full because of the protein”. I think it is just as important to teach our kids why we eat the healthy foods, as it is to teach them why the sweet treat foods can’t dominate our diet.

  2. Hi there,

    I was wondering whether you could give me the journal reference for the American Academy of Pediatrics article that you mentioned, as I am working on some stuff with the obesity campaign and how messed up it is… and would really love to get hold of that article. What Year & volume was it please?

  3. I have to disagree with the comment about a “treat” every day causing future illness…I suppose it depends on the size and content of the food item, but in moderation, even a DAILY “Treat” won’t cause health problems in the future. It’s great to talk about the health benefits of certain foods, but we need to be careful not to demonize certain foods because it will create too much emotion around them. Fear isn’t a good motivator. We can say that apples are GOOD, without needing to say that cookies are BAD, for example. The important thing is to actually take the focus OFF of food…whatever issue we focus on just gets BIGGER.

  4. My kids eat as much as they want of what is offered. Sometimes they eat three servings of chicken. Sometimes they eat nothing but two bites of rice. They have been taught “listen to your body.” When they are eating, we encourage them to stop. And listen. It’s so cute how they pretend their bodies are talking to them. Then if they are still hungry, they keep eating. If they’re not, they stop.

    We eat sweets. We don’t make a big deal about sweets being a “treat” though. Anything sweet, including fruit, is just another food, not its own separate category. It’s all part of a balanced eating habit. And it’s no different when it comes to listening to their bodies. I have had my kids take one bit of a cupcake and throw the rest away because their bodies said they were full.

    I don’t think my 5-year-old daughter even knows what “weight” is. We don’t use that word. Nor “diet” nor “fat.” It’s just not part of our family vocabulary. It helps that we don’t watch commercial television too. 🙂

    • Today while volunteering in my daughter’s classroom, I stayed for snack break. The boy sitting next to my daughter had a sandwich bag of eight Double Stuff Oreos and a water bottle full of what looked like Tang or Kool Aid. He ate ALL of it.

      Actually, most of the children’s snacks were high in sugar, and the portion sizes were huge. We had to separate the idea of sweets, because what Amelia was encountering once she started going to full-days int he public schools was blowing her mind. I now had to parent around the eating habits of 23 other families because all of it was influencing Amelia.

      Not to mention the school lunches…..Tater tots, chocolate milk, and a bag of Cheetohs……The game changes on us, and we have to adjust. Thankfully, Amelia thinks her healthy snacks and lunches from home are great.

      • Rylie goes to full day public kindergarten. Luckily she thinks hot lunch is gross. I understand why parents would need to make sweets a separate category. I’m just glad we haven’t had to yet. I’m doing my best to teach my kids “intuitive eating” and i’m just hoping it sticks. If we need to change our approach we’ll be flexible.

    • Robyn, I LOVE what you said and agree wholeheartedly. Our kids have to FEEL what’s right for them. Sometimes when my kids get home from school they want chips, sometimes they want cucumbers and sometimes they don’t want anything and I LOVE that because it shows me that they are listening to what their bodies are asking and NOT asking for.

      As parents we can help them learn how great healthier foods taste and feel by having them easily accessible in the house…a bowl of washed fruit on the kitchen table can be surprisingly tempting… :o)

  5. The thing is, a newborn’s body does well at getting the amount of milk that it needs, but as children get older, parents choose foods for them. And different kinds of food trigger different responses in the body and brain. I believe that if a child is provided with a healthy, natural variety of foods, the child will naturally eat the right amount. When the only sugary foods that humans could get were sugar cane and fruits (they had to chew up the fiber part and digest it in order to enjoy the sweet part), do you think they could eat too much of them? NO! They were harder to obtain and eat than the wide variety of processed foods in our grocery stores. And they were not nearly as fatty.

    But what if children are provided with excess foods – fried food – sugary food – that have not been a part of the human diet for millions of years? I think it is very possible that parents are giving their children foods that are short-circuiting the body’s natural cues.

    The way that parents think about food will definitely be passed to their children, and unfortunately there are way too many adults who only try to eat well because they are worried about their weight. They go on diets because of weight, and the diets don’t work, and then they go for a while without caring about themselves at all. Children see all of this behavior – they see that parents talk about “weight” and not “health.” Kids aren’t stupid.

    “Research shows that putting too much of an emphasis on food and weight will not encourage healthy eating but may initiate a preoccupation with body image.” I think this statement misses the point entirely. What encourages healthy eating? And what encourages a preoccupation with weight? Those are two different questions with different answers.

    The bottom line is that parents are responsible for what comes into our homes, which makes up the majority of our children’s diets. If we never say a word about food, but we consistently have healthy food in the home, our children have a good foundation for healthy eating. If we talk about health, they will learn about health. And health is important, because unhealthy lives lead to illness and misery. That might sound dramatic, but I know a lot of people who are dealing with different levels of misery because of excess weight and the health problems associated with it. Health is important – and modeling is more effective than talk. Likewise, if we talk about diets and weight and model a concern about them, our kids will learn to be concerned about diets and weight instead of health and happiness.

    It’s entirely up to us, the parents, to model to our children a healthy relationship with food. I agree with Marci – the best way to do this is by not focusing on food. And with Rachel – not letting the advertisements into the home helps a ton! The other thing we can do as parents is take complete responsibility for the food we provide for our young children and allow them to be fed (at daycare, school, etc). The food at my child’s daycare is free, but everyday I strike out certain items that they provide and send healthy items from home. My child is 1, and we know that we are shaping her tastes everyday, and we take it seriously. There is no need to demonize unhealthy foods – we just don’t choose them. And when she gets older, we’ll talk a lot about moderation and balanced meals and living well. When she’s old enough to ask for sweets (fruits are her sweets at this age), we will bake most of the sweets that we eat, so that there is work associated with sweets and also so that we can choose healthy ingredients for our baked goods.

    And an apple or a mandarin can be a “treat.” The language we use sends signals!! 🙂

    • You say, “If we never say a word about food, but we consistently have healthy food in the home, our children have a good foundation for healthy eating.” Your opinions might change as your child ages. We do not parent in a vacuum. I lost huge amounts of control when my children went to school and playdates. We had to change our language when everywhere we went during errands people offered my kids candy. I’m sure you can assume these “sweets” were not apples and mandarins. Also, with both kids now in school and classroom treats (like another student’s birthday) or chocolate milk at snack break (my daughter was supposed to be getting white skim milk), I had to teach my kids about what foods contained too much sugar, which we call “sweet treats”, and why we don’t eat too much of them (sugar bugs on our teeth, upset tummies, no nutrients for our bodies, etc).

      I choose healthy foods for my home, but the language I use had to adapt to the rest of my children’s world.

    • Hi Mary, Thanks for your comments!
      My comment about an emphasis on food being harmful comes from the fact that TOO much of a focus on GOOD and BAD foods creates a FEAR around food and emotions around food that take the emphasis away from health and make it about weight.

      Choosing to have only cetain types of foods in your house is perfectly fine…we’ve just become so afraid of certain foods that it’s making healthy kids WORRY about food instead of enjoy it.

      • Food isn’t “good” or “bad”. Food is morally neutral. I agree that labelling foods in that way isn’t a great idea. There are better ways to talk about food if the distinction needs to be made.

        Also I HATE it when people say “I was good today” or “I was bad today” based on what they ate. What one ate that day does not change the kind of person s/he is.

  6. Melissa, it is sad about the influence of our culture when it comes to food. Still, I’m not sure I will ever call junk food a “treat.” While we don’t live in a vacuum, we’ve got a group of friends for our playdates who all agree to offer healthy snacks like fruit and crackers instead of chips and oreos. And we’re planning to home school, because we don’t really approve of government lunches OR education. So I think we’ll keep calling “treats” the good stuff that Mommy and Daddy bake or the fruits that we go pick from a field.

    If you sense anger in my response, it’s because I’ve had to watch my nephews and niece in a house full of doritos and tater tots. They have slowly lost their natural taste and limits, and the oldest, kindest child is obese. It breaks my heart that this is what our culture and parents are doing to our children. There is really no excuse. Even when the doctor threatened that this precious child is going to have diabetes and heart problems before long, they still have not changed what they buy or how they live. Like I said – breaks my heart – there is no excuse for this.

    • Mary I echo your anger and frustration with parents who feed their children toxic foods and like you describe, cause their children to lose their natural tastes and physical health. It is very hard to watch these families allow their children to ruin their health.

      My husband and I were talking about this the other day when I was sharing with him some info I had recently read that business is booming for companies who make larger furniture for schools that can accomodate the larger bodies of children, that pediatric growth charts no longer work for our kids (first time since 1970’s), and that doctors are now recommending kids be screened for cholesterol by age 9. Astounding.

      • Here’s MY frustration: lack of Physical education in schools! Of course, food is an issue and anytime there is an overwhelming amount of unhealthy foods in a child’s diet it’s a sad, sad thing and completely unneccessary..BUT we also have to realize that there are other factors that lead to obese children and the fact that our kids get very little phys ed in school (at least where I’m from) is a BIG,BIG,BIG problem!

        WE have to teach our kids about healthy living..not just healthy eating..because the 2 have to go hand in hand.

        Active kids FEEL better than sedentary ones, have more self-esteem and therefore make better choices for themselves.’s about learning how to ENJOY and APPRECIATE food..not FEAR it.

        • I wonder how my daughter’s school compares to others — she has Phy Ed three times a week and two outdoor recesses a day. And we stay afterschool year round to play on the playground for 20-60 minutes every day afterschool. Yesterday while we were playing, the other mom and I noticed that not a single house in the neighborhood had kids playing outside. It was sunny and 80 degrees and we were the only people outside. !?

        • My daughter” school extended the school day. To provide more RECESS. I thought that was amazing.

        • Wow! That’s GREAT! My kids only get Phys Ed twice a week..but often miss it for a number of reasons I don’t agree with. I have spoken to parents whose kids get phys ed ONCE a week! Not nearly enough. Melissa and Robyn: I think it’s amazing that your schools obviously value physical education, that is sadly, NOT the case at most schools.

  7. We talk a LOT at my house about listening to our tummy. My 4 year old daughter always says her tummy is starving. In fact, she is quite sure that she has somewhere between 11-39 tummies. We have medical anatomy books that we have used to “help” with these conversations and her response is, “Well there are a lot that of things that people don’t fully understand.” ah, I digress. When she was an infant on breastmilk, left to her own devices, she would eat until she threw up. Now, she will eat until her tummy hurts, every time, unless we limit her. Now we do eat primarily very healthy, minimally processed food. So I’m not worried about the quality of the nutrients. To her, a “treat” is an organic granola bar or a homemade fruit roll up or a small piece of chocolate.
    But given how often we are telling her that she needs to stop eating, I worry tremendously that we will be dealing with body image and/or health issues in her future. I would love some ideas or insights to guide us!
    I have really appreciated this series and feel like we are making a lot of good choices, but still, I worry.

  8. Hi Laura!
    Of course you’re going to worry, because that’s what moms do,right? But you are obviously trying to do what’s BEST for your child,and this whole food issue is a challenge for ALL of us.

    I can’t tell you how many times my 10 year old son was sure he was going to “Starve to death” when I knew that he had just eaten enough to keep his tummy full for at least a couple of hours.

    A few tips:
    Explain that there is a difference between WANTING more to eat and NEEDING more to eat.
    Sometimes we eat something that tastes great and we want MORE even though we’ve actually had enough and the truth is that eating more will just makes us feel yucky and won’t taste nearly as good as the first serving we had.

    I call it being “Mouth hungry” vs “Tummy hungry”. Often, our tummies know when we’re full before the rest of us does.

    Remind her of a time when she overate and how sick she felt…food should be enjoyed to the point where it satisfies us and not beyond. (That said, it’s completely normal to feel stuffed sometimes and that’s ok..but it shouldn’t be the feeling she’s looking for everytime she eats)

    Body image/Eating Disorders can come from tying emotions to food (good and bad)so make to keep things positive: “I’m so happy you like to eat, we NEED nutrition to make our bodies strong and healthy, to make sure our bodies WORK well, we need to treat it with respect and give it what it needs, when it needs it”

    Bring in New, fun foods for her to try. Variety is great and still keeps things positive.

    At that age, distraction is good too. Once she’s had enough to eat, get her doing something else. Like all of us, we can confuse being bored with being hungry and sometimes just need to leave the table and get our mind on something else.

    Hope that helps a little!


  1. […] usually comes from a place of jealousy, and is completely subjective. Did school introduce a new weight-based health initiative that weighs children or focuses on the misguided BMI? That may give you more insight into how to […]

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