Parental attitudes root of good eating habits

2009-11-19 00:00

THIS book is deceptive. It looks and sounds like the answer to many mothers’ prayers. I thought it was going to tell me how to persuade my son to eat fruit and vegetables.

Sadly, it didn’t. However, it’s still a great book.

The author is a clinical psychologist in Cape Town who has worked with clients, both parents and children, who have “issues with weight and food”. I guess this makes her an expert.

If I’d read this when my children were six months old rather than eight years old, it would have been a bigger help. Rather than a step-by-step guide on “how to get your children to eat broccoli”, the book is an accessible exploration of the spirituality (yes indeed), psychology, physiology and social context surrounding food and eating.

The author believes that children are born with all the right attitudes to life, food and eating — what she calls the biological sacred order. As they grow up, Western society disturbs that order and teaches them beliefs and attitudes that result in things such as low self-esteem, poor eating habits, eating disorders and poor body image. Unfortunately, this often happens through us, their parents.

Cari Corbet-Owen writes that parents don’t have to teach their children:

• fabulous self-esteem;

• passion for life;

• the joy of laughter;

• healthy eating; or

• happy exercising habits.

What we have to do instead, is try not to mess up what our children have innately by looking to nature and knowing. She draws a distinction between Beliefs, which adults use to guide decisions, while children rely on Knowing. Beliefs will let us down in crisis, but Knowing never will because “it’s woven into the fabric of your being”.

She backs this up with some persuasive evidence for children’s ability to just know what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat, as long as the responsible adults concerned provide them with healthy food choices. She quotes her nephew as an example of this innate Knowing.

Born with severe eczema, the boy loves olives, but often goes for long periods without eating any. Then he’ll suddenly dive into the olive jar and create a veritable pyramid of discarded pips. Why? Because his eczema is troubling him and the olive oil improves it visibly.

So, Corbet-Owen encourages parents to trust their children’s instincts and ability to make good food choices and self-regulate the amount that they eat. Which is why I say I wish I’d read this book when my children were younger and had not yet started to form their ideas­ about and attitudes to food and eating. At least before my son declared his so-far undying hatred of anything that is fresh and has a stem, pips, leaves or roots.

According to the writer, hunger is a part of the sacred order. She encourages parents to allow children to honour their tummy hunger rather than clock hunger.

“Any time children’s tummies are hungry is exactly when they should be eating. It’s not eating at meal times that is sacred; it’s eating for hunger that is.”

Although the book is about teaching children healthy eating habits, much of it focuses on parents. Duh, isn’t the reason obvious, you may think? Well, yes, it is, but then why do so many of us still get it wrong? Children, she says, are an extension of their parents, which puts a scary responsibility on us, doesn’t it?

I should have known, but I had never connected the dots and realised why our children eat unusual things such as sushi and pistachio nuts, but not a Brussel sprout or cooked cabbage.

Now I get it. They don’t eat those things because we don’t eat them. As a result, the author challenges parents to examine, and, where necessary, change their own attitudes and practices. Children mimic their parents so they are more likely to eat healthily and have a healthy body image if their parents do.

The author encourages parents to get children involved in shopping and food preparation and to give them more control over what, when and how much they eat.

Research indicates that children who are more involved in food-related activities learnt from this and scored higher on their food knowledge, making healthy food choices and self-regulating their nutritional intake (pg 156).

Fortunately, she believes that all is not lost for those of us whose children already have set ideas and attitudes — what the author calls a greenhouse. She offers a list of tips for making changes to your children’s already existing greenhouse [see box].

Read the label

The book is, however, useful for more than just parents as it presents up-to-date research on food preferences and exposes marketing methods that encourage unhealthy eating.

Corbet-Owen’s golden rule for grocery shopping is read the label. For her, the closer a food is to the natural state, the better. In this regard, she has developed a coloured hand guide [see box] based on the colours of traffic lights. It would make an instructive exercise for the whole family to assess their diet against this. Although it may sound like a guilt-inducing read for many parents (which it was), Corbet-Owen’s book does not leave us in the woeful breast-beating depths. It is packed full of ideas and tips for encouraging children to eat a healthy diet.

She also leaves parents with some heartening words: “In every­ way, especially in our biochemistry, whether our bodies are large or small is far less important to our health and happiness than knowing that we are loved and accepted.”


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