Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Healthful Eating Habits

One of the things I really want my daughter to achieve is a healthy relationship with food. I've mostly given up on genuinely achieving this for myself, though I can fake it really well. I've been pondering the ins and outs of this for the past little while as I introduce more and more foods to her, and try to lay the groundwork for her eating habits.

I've been attending Weight Watchers meetings for over three years, and we spend a lot of time at those meetings talking about, for lack of a better term, the psychology behind eating habits - whether healthy or not. We talk about comfort eating and emotional eating. Lately when I listen to and participate in these discussions I think not only of my own long-established habits and attitudes, but how I can help Gwen in the formation of her own habits and attitudes.

Thinking like this has certainly allowed me to see where those unhealthful habits get formed, though. We're dealt it right from the start. Take comfort eating, for example. As adults, we know we should eat for fuel, not for emotional comfort, and we strive to break that connection. But for an infant, there is no division between comfort and food. When Gwen was so tiny she couldn't even understand that I was a person, when all she knew was that she felt good and safe when I was nearby, she also learned that I was the source of food. The feel of a mother's skin, the scent of her, the warmth, the connection, the love ... and food. All in one. Is it any wonder we form those associations?

Nowadays, Gwen is getting most of her nutrients from a bottle, which she can mostly hold herself. She eats solids once a day and usually nurses (if only briefly) 2-3 times a day. And more and more, those nursing sessions are all about comfort, connection, and cuddling, rather than nutrition. I know because recently I counted how many times Gwen sucked before swallowing during nursing, and it was about 15 times. It used to be she would swallow every 2-3 sucks, but there's just not that much milk there anymore. Moreover, the times she requests nursing are emotionally dependent times: when she is tired, when we've been apart, when she's hurt. My point is, Gwen is definitely forming those comfort-food associations.

And let me be clear, I don't think there's *anything* at all wrong with that. I'm enjoying breastfeeding all the more now that it's a somewhat rare activity, and it makes me feel really good that I can make her so happy during those moments. And I'm certainly not worried that because she has those associations now, they will continue through the years and doom her to a lifetime of poor food choices. I just think it's interesting to observe how the habits that are so derided in adult life are all but impossible to avoid in the early months and years. And to wonder where one draws the line, and how.

Another interesting phenomenon is that of social eating. In our culture, it's hard to find any instance of social communal behaviour that doesn't include food - and usually, way too much of it. Think about it - the main event of the major holidays (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving) is a gigantic, gluttonous meal, and the theme of many others (Valentine's Day, Halloween, Easter again) is stuffing ourselves with chocolate and candy. Birthday parties centre around cakes. Anniversaries and other celebrations are marked by going out for dinner. You can't even get together with a friend or colleague just for the sake of conversation - you're "going out for coffee".

This is a major bugbear of mine, and I have some ideas about how to mitigate the negative effects of these customs as Gwen grows up. For example, I'd love it if we spent part of those humungous 'feast days' going for a walk as a family. (I'd love it even more if the meals themselves were healthful and well-portioned, but until I'm willing to take on the task of making and hosting them myself, I can't complain too much about that.)

On a smaller scale, we know that sharing meals as a family is a healthy thing to do. It builds our family connections, and there have been studies done to show that girls who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are less likely to experience eating disorders. It's one of my goals for the New Year to get the three of us eating the same meals, at the same time (right now we have three separate meals at three separate times!). I am really looking forward to re-establishing the tradition of family meals, which was a cornerstone of my own upbringing.

But once again, looking at this from an infant's perspective turns the idea on its head. The nutritionist at the Health Unit encourages us to let the babies feed themselves when they begin solids, because spoonfeeding your baby is an interactive, attention-giving experience, and babies may overeat just to keep the interaction going. That is to say, the babies might be grooving more on the social aspects of the meal than the nutritive ones. (Obviously, with our teeny little 15-pound 7-month-old, this isn't exactly a huge concern for us.)

So let me get this straight. We don't want to teach our kids to associate mealtime with social interaction, because it might make them overeat. But then again, we want to establish mealtime as a family event that we share together, because that will make them less likely to have eating disorders. What a minefield! It's no wonder most of us have bad eating habits.

Just like everything else about parenting, you just do your best and cross your fingers. Wish I had time for more thoughtful conclusions on the topic, but the little darling is awake and I must run!


Amberism said...

We all eat together, Claire included, because right from the moment Steve and I moved in together, he made a big deal about it, so it's our routine now. I just dollop the food on the highchair while I eat. Mostly so I can eat my meal in peace because I'm all selfish like that. Everyone else spoon-feeds her, though, and I have no doubt she'd eat forever just to get to "talk" to them!

And I agree, the "social eating" thing is big deal, and I find that I'll reward myself with a treat. Do well on a test? Cake! Ran a race? Chocolate bar!

Kat said...

I would suggest that preventing emotional eating habits have to do with fostering self-awareness. You have to notice the thing that triggers you to eat for comfort and then be able to comfort yourself some other way or just notice that you feel like you need comfort. I have no idea how to foster self-awareness in children but I bet your husband might be good at that. I know I wish I had learned how to listen to my emotional triggers a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

What Kat said: it's about emotional and physical awareness.
Teach her to be aware of her emotional state and also of her physical state. To acknowledge when she's full and has had enough.

I have a big bugbear about what sometimes comes across to me as an anti-food culture in this culture. I know that people have battles with food and weight, hell, even I have my own now... but I don't think that eating for comfort or for pleasure or for social connection is wrong. On the contrary, food is one of the best things about being human!

I believe it's only wrong when we take it to gluttony. Like most things, in moderation they are wonderful and in excess they are bad for us.

So my take on all this is: teach our children moderation and awareness and they will make good decisions for themselves and still be able to enjoy pie and turkey and good wine in their lives.


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