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What My Kids Taught Me About Eating Mindfully

By Michelle May, M.D.

little girl with bananas on her headAs parents, we’re supposed to teach our children healthy habits. As a doctor, I was supposed to model healthy habits for my patients too. But the truth is, my habits weren’t particularly healthy.

By the time my children could both walk and talk, I had been yoyo dieting for nearly 25 years. It may not have been obvious on the outside, but my head was filled with food rules acquired from years of intermittent restriction to make up for years of mindless and emotional eating. I could estimate the calories and points of just about any food; I knew how long I had to spend on the treadmill for eating a “bad” food; and I had worn out the pages of my Weight Watchers Cookbook. I regularly experienced the elation, deprivation, and guilt of my perpetual eat-repent-repeat cycle.

I admired my husband’s ability to eat whatever he wanted. He certainly didn’t seem to have extraordinary willpower so I assumed that he was just lucky to have a great metabolism. That was one trait I hoped my children would inherit from him.

Fortunately, they too seemed to effortlessly eat what they liked (within the reasonable, not rigid, parameters we set). I was careful not to impose my diet-thinking on them because deep down, I knew that it wasn’t working for me and it wouldn’t work for them either.

As I marveled at their instinctive ability to regulate their fuel intake according to their needs, I realized that they hadn’t inherited it from my husband; we are all born with these innate skills! As we grow, some of us unlearn them. We learn to eat for reasons other than hunger-mealtimes, tempting food, stress, anger, boredom, deprivation, guilt, and countless other triggers – and often choose foods based on those other triggers.

I decided that my job wasn’t to teach my kids when and how much to eat; they already knew that. My job was to provide them with a variety and balance of delicious foods and support their natural skills so they could thrive within the current food-abundant environment.

Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating CycleI eventually relearned to eat instinctively and developed the Mindful Eating Cycle to help others learn how to do it too.

(From Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle.)

So what are the instinctive skills we’re born with to manage our eating?

Let’s briefly explore each of the decision making skills in the Mindful Eating Cycle and talk about what parents can do to support instinctive eating in our children, and if necessary, relearn it for ourselves. (To find out if you have forgotten these skills, take this quiz.)

Supporting the Instinctive Eating Cycle

Why? Why do I eat? When you eat instinctively, the need for fuel mostly drives your eating cycle.

What parents can do: You are responsible for making sure your children’s fuel needs are met consistently.

When? When do I eat? When your body needs fuel, it triggers the physical sensations that tell you you’re hungry.

What parents can do: Scarcity and excessive hunger are powerful triggers for attachment to food and overeating when food is available. Recognize and respond to your baby’s signals of true hunger promptly. As they grow, provide balanced, enjoyable meals at reliable intervals and offer appropriate snacks for hunger that occurs between meals. For older children, give them increasing responsibility for meeting their fuel needs.

What? What do I eat? Our food choices are affected by availability, preferences, social and emotional influences, awareness of nutrition information, and many other factors. When given positive exposure to a variety of foods in a supportive, non-coercive manner, children naturally seek balance and moderation in their eating.

What parents can do: Provide a consistent supply of interesting, healthful foods, and model enjoyment when eating these foods. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” using bribes, threats, or guilt, or becoming a “short-order cook.” Read more: 7 Things Parents Say that May Contribute to Eating Issues in Kids (and what to say instead).

How? How do I eat? When you’re eating to satisfy hunger and nourish your body, you eat mindfully, paying attention to the food and your body’s signals.

What parents can do: Involve children in selecting and preparing food. Eat together as a family as often as possible. Make the family table a pleasant, relaxed time for nourishment and connection.

How Much? How much do I eat? You typically decide how much food to eat by how hungry you are. When your hunger is satisfied, you usually stop eating, even if there’s food left. You recognize that being too full is uncomfortable and unnecessary since you will eat again when you are hungry.

What parents can do: Observe for signals that your child is satisfied. Babies will slow down, start looking around, or fall asleep. Toddlers will refuse food, spit it out, play with it, and/or become easily distracted. Older children will verbalize that they are full and exhibit other disinterested behaviors. Don’t bribe or threaten them to continue eating beyond these natural boundaries or they will learn to override their body’s signals, leading to overeating when portion sizes are larger than they need.

Where? Where do I invest my energy? Your fuel is used to live your life; for children that includes growing, exploring, playing, and learning. Any leftover fuel is stored until it’s needed.

What parents can do: Limit sedentary activities and screen time; play and exercise together as a family; encourage fun physical activity; don’t focus on physical appearance; model appreciation for your body’s capacity to become more energetic, stronger, and flexible.

Our children don’t need us to teach them when and how much to eat but they do need us to model a healthy, balanced approach to food and provide enjoyable meals and physical activity as a family.

Please share your thoughts and ideas for supporting healthy habits in our children!

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

4 Comments

  1. Maryann says:

    Michelle — you hit the nail on the head with this post! I’m always telling parents that they can learn so much from their kids. Yound children are clean slates with food and eating– and we can either nuture their natural ability to regular food or teach them the controlled way of eating that doesn’t work. This lesson can heal so many parents who are also struggling. Thanks for summarizing it up so nicely!

  2. So much to learn from this post! Thanks for taking the time to write it; I will be sharing and referring to it often.

  3. Hi Michelle:

    What a wonderful post! I completely agree with the basic idea that we all have an instinctive ability to regulate our food intake. The best way for me is to not miss breakfast, then eat a small midmorning snack so I don’t end up eating too much at lunch. Same goes for a mid to late afternoon snack. I have to plan well if I go for a workout (which I usually do before lunch or late evening before dinner). Always take a snack 1/2 to 1 h before the workout.

    Really appreciate your thoughtful writing with practical tips!

  4. Thank you Naveen. Awareness of what works best for us shifts our perspective from what “should” I do, to what will I do to feel my best?

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