My weight was the center-focus of my childhood. I was raised to view foods as either “good” or “bad” I was acutely aware that everyone in my life wanted me to lose weight.

We rarely had junk food in the house. I was discouraged from getting seconds at a meal and having any type of sweet was usually frowned upon.

From my mom’s standpoint, she felt that by stocking the fridge with healthy options, discouraging sweets and encouraging exercise, she was helping me to be healthy. Seemingly, she did most things right. From my perspective, however, the constant focus on food and exercise turned it into an unhealthy an obsession.

Fundamentally, food restriction encouraged me to sneak food and it increased the appeal of sugary junk foods. As with most things, knowing that certain things were “off limits” made them larger than life. Sneaking food quickly snowballed into overindulging, food obsession and bingeing.

I’m not a parent but I do understand that you don’t want food to be a free-for-all and you need to set healthy boundaries for kids. However, there’s a fine line between healthy boundaries and an unhealthy focus on food restriction and limitations.

Based on my own personal experiences and my educational and professional background in nutrition and health education, here are my thoughts on walking that fine line and raising healthy, fit kids free of food obsession and unhealthy relationships with food or exercise.

  • As cliché as it is, lead by example. This goes far beyond making good food choices. This is about the way you talk about food, dieting, exercise and body weight. It can be just as damaging for your children to see you restricting, dieting down and stressing as to see you overindulging and constantly making unhealthy choices. Show your children that you choose healthy foods because you enjoy them and they fuel your body best. Show your children that you workout because it makes you feel strong and vibrant. Show your kids that you love your body – show them by how you talk, how you eat and how you move.
  • Don’t use food as a reward. What adult can’t relate to thinking “I’m ordering pizza tonight because it was a long day and I deserve it” or “I’m stressed and the only thing that will make me feel better is ice cream! I deserve it!”. That is food-rewarding at it’s worst. If you want pizza, have pizza. If you want ice cream, enjoy every bite! But teaching kids (or yourself!) that food is comfort or reward is a very slippery slope.
  • Get them involved in food and fitness choices. Encourage them to try new, healthy foods until they find one they really love. Avoid forcing foods on them just because they’re “healthy”. Involve them in cooking, or even better, in growing veggies, herbs or fruits in a garden. The more ownership they feel, the more likely they are to enjoy it. Similarly, let them try out lots of activities until they find one they really enjoy. Try not to force activities on them that they don’t look forward to.
  • Relax a little. Food, fitness and exercise should not be the daily focus of energy and conversation. Kids need to be kids. Yes, they should absolutely understand the value of quality nutrition but let’s not stop the world over the gluten-containing cupcake your kid was served at school. Food is fuel. Can we all agree to please stop attaching strong emotion to it?

I don’t have kids. It makes me nervous. I don’t want my kids to be bullied the way I was. I don’t want them to feel ashamed of their bodies. I don’t want them to feel pressured to diet or lose weight in elementary school. I want them to love and cherish their bodies! I want them to understand that food helps us become strong, fit and capable. I want them to enjoy a cupcake without attaching emotions like guilt, shame or regret to it. It’s sugar and flour and butter. There’s no emotion in the recipe and I want them to keep it that way.