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The Danger of Diets on Daughters

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The Danger of Diets on Daughters

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May 6, 2022

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By Erin Woodbury

I don’t remember too much from my elementary school days. Certain friends and soccer teams. Good teachers…the not so good teachers, my 3rd grade pool party. Most memories are just an overall sense of a good childhood without any trauma.

And even though I probably have a thousand notable moments and positive experiences that should be embedded in my head and heart…

I have a few mother-daughter-body image ones that stand out, and scream louder than all the good ones combined.

I have very specific recollections of my mom standing in front of a mirror lamenting her “thunder thighs” – and as a result – deciding in kindergarten that I would never again wear shorts, because when I sat down, I noticed my thighs got bigger.

Now, my mom was anything but a large woman. There was no thunder on her thighs (or anywhere for that matter) at all. But I heard the term, personalized it, and decided that if my thin, athletically built mom who worked out regularly was claiming to not love her upper legs, I, too, would not like my own.

I remember a few battles with my mom where she’d try to get me to wear a cute pair of summer shorts. We lived in sunny California, after all. But it was a ‘hard no’ for me. Wearing shorts meant my thighs would flatten and expand any time I sat, so I dug my heels in and sweated it out in pants or long dresses.

And let me reiterate…I. Was. Five. Years. Old.

These beliefs ended up shaping who I became, and how I was going to ‘parent differently’ if I ever had a daughter.

I don’t blame my mom for not knowing better. Many moms don’t know the power their words, beliefs and body issues have over their children. But I’m here to say… your kids are watching. They’re listening. They’re internalizing. And they’re more perceptive than we think.

According to the National Library of Medicine, “Children’s eating behaviors may be influenced by children’s perceptions of parental pressure to lose weight. Several reports have shown that children’s restrained eating behavior and dieting practices are highly linked to perceptions of parental pressure and/or encouragement to diet or lose weight.”

So even if you’re not at all speaking about your child’s weight or encouraging them to lose a single pound, their perception could still be pressure to lose weight if you model restriction in your own life.

“I will be better”

My daughter was born 20 years ago. I got certified to teach fitness classes the very same year. She was three months old when I needed to spend 16 hours over two days taking a workshop that would allow me to teach group fitness classes. My mom drove her to me multiple times per day so that I could nurse her.

Maybe it all started then…my tiny baby in a room, held by me, as I memorized anatomy and choreography in order to pass the tests to be good enough to lead others in group classes. All I know is that my focus on fitness, food, health, longevity and performance began then, and as a result, became an integral part of our everyday lives as a family (for better or for worse).

Determined to do things differently than my mom, I read books, I listened to podcasts, I made a conscious effort to never speak about my body in front of my kids–good or bad. I may have been THINKING I still had thunder thighs like my mom, but I knew better than to say it out loud. #winning! (I thought I was superior…enlightened…doing the good mom thing. But I was mistaken).

What I didn’t realize at the time, was that my actions were more powerful than the words I was so focused on NOT saying. And it would take me two decades, a daughter who finally spoke up to tell me her experience, and therapy, to realize that my efforts, while wholeheartedly sincere, completely backfired.

What went wrong

I’m the first to admit that I am a complete and total health-geek. If you ask me a question about macronutrients, you’ll get a dissertation. Want to talk about intermittent fasting? Carve out at least a couple of hours over some cancer-fighting green tea. And there is no short answer when it comes to food logging, lifting, supplements or healthy food swaps. I’ll invite you over, do a cooking tutorial and send you home with a goodie bag. I literally cannot stop learning, experimenting and hoping you’ll sit in an infrared sauna with me sweating out toxins over conversations of hot/cold therapy, gut health and inflammation.

And because I got (and still get) so fired up about science, trends and metrics, my enthusiasm around the house was always a bit like a mad scientist. My idea of fun was testing out all of the ways in which people eat to feel amazing and live longer. I was blowing my fresh keto breath into a device to see how far into ketosis I was. Sticking myself with a continuous glucose monitor to gauge my blood sugar for two weeks. I food-logged, wore a heart rate device and tracked my sleep with an Oura ring. I was obsessed with swapping applesauce for oil, monk fruit for sugar and seeing how much pureed cauliflower I could add to desserts undetected.

(The socially acceptable term for this now, and for the past few years, is “biohacking.” But as I look at the culmination of my efforts, I’d be lying if I said it was a net positive. It was simply a hack-job.)

I was passionate about my food and fitness hobby, and assumed everyone else was too. Experimenting with food actually became my job. I was hired by Quest Nutrition to be their media chef, creating fun, protein-packed recipes for their bars, powders and chips. Working there opened my eyes to myriad health trends, which fueled my fire even more.

Over the years I tried new things on my family, asking for feedback and experimenting every chance I got.

– “Let’s do the Whole30. Kids..no more cereal, bread or anything sweet for a month…it’ll be fun, okay?” 

– “Who wants to try intermittent fasting and Bulletproof coffee?”

– “Carnivore diet anyone?” (In my defense, I did this one on my own… the results of which should come in a future blog, because, oh my, did I have an experience).

– “Calling all vegans–or future vegans–let’s give it a shot.”

– “Paleo is the way to go: no more peanut butter, rice or oats.”

While the whole family (husband, daughter and two younger boys) was eating everything I made, and offering primarily favorable feedback, this “fun” experimentation was internalized to them as, “to be healthy, you need to follow a specific and strict protocol.”

I was always careful to explain my reasoning for trying things out as nothing more than experimenting for performance and longevity purposes. We never went “on a diet.” I consciously never used the word diet. We simply had “new ways of eating to try.” I never talked about weight loss. But it didn’t matter. The message came across as, every specific bite matters, and you have to keep testing a million things to “get it right,” even though I wasn’t searching for “right” because there is no universal right for all people. That much I knew.

However, I didn’t stop to ask some important questions along the way. Intel that might have slowed me down, and had me baking chocolate chip filled cookies with real flour as opposed to the protein powder balls I was hoping everyone would love and that would perhaps pass for a close second to gooey, heavenly vanilla-scented Toll House mounds fresh out of the oven.. (Hint…they aren’t as good as the real thing no matter how hard you try).

I admit, I didn’t eat dessert and turned my nose up at everything that contained sugar. I mean, didn’t everyone watch the documentary “Fed Up” and swear off sugar for life?! My answer was always: “those things don’t make me feel good.” I thought that truthful answer was perfectly acceptable. But not loosening the reins sometimes makes kids question their own choices. In hindsight, I wish I’d just eaten the dang cookie. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Parents… your kids are watching!

Something else I never dreamed would become an issue, and was only recently brought to my attention, was the amount of food I’d eat. 

My daughter told me that she always wondered (and felt bad) about her plate of food being bigger than mine. I explained to her that, yes, sometimes I wouldn’t eat much at dinner, but oftentimes it was because I grazed while making the meal and just wasn’t that hungry. To be clear, I was NOT EVER starving myself. My point is, even subtle choices–regardless of logic or intent–can potentially have negative effects. 

To little wondering eyes, the message was: “mom doesn’t eat much. I eat more than mom. Therefore, I am not disciplined, or I eat too much.”

There were times I was testing intermittent fasting and knew I didn’t want my kids to see me not eat, so I would pretend, or make up a reason why I wasn’t eating at that meal, or explain the truth and the science behind my time-restricted eating. To be clear: I always ate. I love food! I never met a cooking show or recipe I didn’t like! But my experience shows that kids take that information and process it differently than the strategy in our minds. #notwinning 

So I’m talking to all parents here when I say…actions speak louder than words. And to all parents in the health and wellness space, or even just enthusiasts, little eyes are watching you very closely. Your kids want to be like you. So be careful how much “weight” you put on your physique, food choices and overall black and white beliefs about health. Other than politics, there aren’t many topics as divisive as food and exercise, so it can be difficult to get off of the soapbox long enough to consider multiple philosophies that allow your kids to make their own informed decisions.

So, what’s the answer?

It’s okay to do research. It’s great to encourage healthy eating. Kudos to you if you regularly read the ingredient list and nutritional panel on foods before you buy them. Just be careful that your passions don’t become a breeding ground for little ones who want to be like you but can’t, because, well, kids like cake and ice cream at birthday parties. And they should…they’re kids. 

You definitely need to lead by example, but also let them come to their own conclusions and have their own opinions. Passively brainwashing them, even in the spirit of “learning, enriching and overall health,” still robs them of their freedom of choice.

Things to avoid

Talking about your body image issues, or saying anything negative about their body. Don’t comment on other people’s bodies, and avoid discussing diets within earshot of your children, or define foods as “good” or “bad.”

Making physical attributes the most important thing about you, or your primary focus. Honor your health, yes. But don’t make the physical outcome the driving force. Avoid black and white, all or nothing, views on food and/or exercise.

Pressuring kids to eat things they dislike or to “clean their plates” if they’re not truly hungry. It’s okay to introduce foods a few times to get them to try new things, but never force them.

Participating in sports that are an extension of you, not them. Kids need to pick the sports and activities that suit them, otherwise they’ll constantly be trying to live up to your expectations, or your legacy.

Keeping only mega-healthy or only junk food in the house. Strike a balance so that kids know they have options, and that not all days are free-for-alls, or super strict. Options encourage them to make choices, which builds their confidence and character. Along those lines, don’t use food as a punishment or reward. This is a big one, but try not to bribe your kids with ice cream, or punish them by sending them to bed without dessert. Celebrate, enjoy, savor…but don’t withhold or use it to get something from your kids.

Ways to thrive

Focus more on the kindness of others, and character traits that have nothing to do with the physical, and talk openly about advertising, photoshop and how people at any size can be healthy. Also: Make physical activity fun and non-competitive. Focus on if the game was fun, not the win or the loss.

Give them choices at meal time. Carrots, hummus and strawberries, or beans, pita and cucumbers? Kids need to know they’re capable of choosing wisely, and according to their cravings too. Present some options that please them and are relatively healthy, and see what they do. They might surprise you!

Cook with them and teach them techniques, about sauces, seasonings and bake times. The more invested they are in the experience, the more equipped they’ll be when they leave the nest. They’ll be confident in the kitchen rather than relying on fast food or packaged food, and they’ll delight in their knowledge. Go to a Farmer’s Market and let them choose the things that look good, or make them excited about cooking. Talk about local produce and seasonal foods instead of “bad or good foods.”

Remember that your kids look up to you, and want to be like you (yes, even prickly teens), so be a good role model. Think about the things that trigger you, and your own body issues or history with your own mom. Realize when those things come up, address them from within, and do your best to break the cycle.

Eat as a family, sitting down at a table, as many times per week as you can. Talk, play word games, whip out some “would you rather” topics, or share the three things you’re grateful for. Establish a routine they’ll remember.

Enjoy treats from time to time (or as often as works for your family) without guilt, eye rolls or judgment. Seek balance. Eat. The. Cookie.

Ask for forgiveness 

Every parent wants to do right by their kids. But despite our best efforts, sometimes we miss the mark. I often view parenting as dodging bullets. It’s in-combat training every day. You don’t know what’s coming until it’s there, and if you’re not equipped or ready, you’re going down, and the consequences are severe.

As parents, preparation is key. All we can do is be as ready as possible by studying up on parenting skills and situations.  You probably scoured books on Amazon to get ready for your new baby, or to get them on a sleep schedule, or to stop throwing tantrums. Keep up that learning when they’re older too, especially because your influence on their long-term health, choices and beliefs are shaped during adolescence.

And when you falter…ask for forgiveness. Showing your human side, your flaws, your inexperience and vulnerability goes a long way. It can’t erase things, but it shows your kids you’ve identified places in which you could have done better, and provides hope that you’ll make strides to do better, now that you know better.

Today, I make different choices. I experiment less and I don’t require, or even invite family members on my journeys. I listen to podcasts and books while driving solo, and not when carpooling (I actually learned that one the hard way when my son, then three, asked me from the backseat: “mom-why you give me carbs?” in his tiny, un-grammatically correct language during a keto podcast I was listening to).

My daughter is in college, and I can proudly say, is doing amazing! She knows her way around a kitchen, loves to cook for her friends and strikes a balance with her food choices. But this took work and therapy, and I’d be foolish to think my actions didn’t affect her in ways that will creep up in the future. But I asked for forgiveness, and received it. We are consciously moving forward, and every day and every choice is made thoughtfully and prayerfully.

My boys are still at home. I don’t bake homemade gluten-free bread anymore. I stopped making nut milk from scratch. We eat peanut butter (and oats and rice…sorry Paleo). I still avoid buying really junky food with ingredients we cannot pronounce, but we have a lot more popcorn, do silly cooking challenges using only what we can find in one pantry in under 30 minutes, and we bake real cookies from time to time. 

And we eat them…together.

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