By Dalia Abott, LMSW RD
Whether they know it or not, mothers are powerful nutrition role models for their daughters. As mothers, we pass down specific genetic traits such as hair and eye color, height, and body shape. More important are the overlooked behavioral traits — the eating habits and food rules, our feelings towards physical activity, and our own body image perceptions. With the advancement of technology and the rise of social media, it is harder to get away with telling our children to “Do as I say and not as I do.” Rather, it is more “Daughter see, daughter do,” which oftentimes is an underlying factor of what leads a patient to my office.
Studies have shown that a mother’s own food choices are more influential than any other attempts she makes to control her daughter’s food consumption, regardless of the desired outcome of more or less calories overall. Furthermore, an authoritarian parenting style (a strict disciplinarian) was found to have the highest pushback behavior when it came to adopting healthy changes. Trying to utilize control as a means of “teaching” your child the most optimal food and behavioral choices is one of the more prevalent underlying issues I have seen in my 20 years of practice. Conversely, offering a choice to a child, of which you as a parent would realistically engage in either option, has proven to be most effective. This allows for the child to feel a sense of autonomy and respect at the same time as feeling cared for.
By age six, 40 percent of children are already attuned to the idea of becoming thinner. By age eight, 50 percent have begun learning to do something about it. By age 13, 80 percent have begun dieting. By age 16, 84 percent have expressed feeling fat — of which 62 percent have begun using dangerous methods to lose weight. Most shockingly, a young girl who diets is eight times more likely to develop an eating disorder. We must pay attention to these alarming statistics and begin to do our parts as mothers.
Sadly, we cannot control everything that our children are exposed to. Comments among friends, social media glorification, and access to the internet are all key factors that influence your child’s sense of self. Our control comes in with what they see us doing. Do you compliment your body in front of your child or do you try on a bunch of outfits complaining about how each one looks? Do you eat all types of food, including indulgent choices? Or do you skip meals and omit food groups?
We need to learn how to openly feed and respect the bodies we are born with. Doing, not telling, is the best strategy. Here are some examples of how we can accomplish this:
- Make time for family meals. We are very blessed that Hashem has taught us this ritual through our Shabbat customs. However, it needs to happen more often. Making family meals a priority, despite scheduling difficulties, emerged as the most consistent protective factor for disordered eating according to the Journal of Adolescent Medicine. Researchers found teenage girls who ate five or more family meals per week were less likely to resort to extreme dieting measures. Offer all types of food groups and keep the conversations light with overall daily check-ins and laughter.
- Never use food as a reward or a punishment. Food is nourishment and should be used as fuel for our bodies rather than methods to coerce a child for a desired outcome.
- Get out and move, but do not be a slave to the gym. Your own attitudes towards exercise habits and physical activity levels have a significant association with those of your children. If you can’t miss your morning kickboxing class for anything in this world, you have taken it too far. Show the importance of living an active lifestyle while still allowing for compromise. Even better, take a family walk or bike ride. Pick up a new hobby as a family, like tennis lessons or joining a local community 5K.
Dalia Abott, is a registered dietitian and social worker with a private practice in Woodmere. She specializes in adolescent and family therapy with a focus on eating disorders, body image and self-esteem. She can be reached at 718-490-9232 or DaliaKAbott@gmail.com.