The first time our fifth grader bought a salad for school lunch, she proudly delivered the news as soon as she walked in the kitchen door.
I didn’t share her delight.
“Honey, just so you know, salad isn’t a meal. It’s a side,” I cautioned. “Lettuce and vegetables won’t keep you full.” Our daughter wrinkled her nose. “But a salad’s healthy, right?” she asked.
Of course the objective answer is yes. But my answer was more complicated. I couldn’t celebrate her otherwise healthy choice because I worried she had begun to model my dieting and restrictive eating habits she witnessed as a younger child – habits that included lots of salad eating (and little else) and ultimately led to my diagnosis of anorexia nearly two years ago. Was this a monkey see, monkey do?
The uneasiness I felt over our daughter’s choice of lunch wasn’t completely unfounded. Children whose parents suffer from an eating disorder are significantly more likely to develop one themselves. Even more frightening is a study that found 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being “fat.” I wonder how many of their parents share the same fear? Our daughter is remarkably indifferent about her appearance, but I’m remarkably in tune to her age and her biology.
And what about other parents who regularly diet, model extreme healthy eating, and universally restrict certain foods? No one would argue that we could all stand to eat fewer processed foods, sugars and white flour, but what do we teach our children when we demonize these foods to maintain our “healthy” bodies?
When I was in high school, my vegetarian or vegan peers made the choice out of deference to animals and not as part of a healthy lifestyle. It was less about restriction and more about principle. Fast forward 25 years and there are any number of ways to classify how principled one eats: Pescatarian, Paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, raw food, Mediterranean, the list goes on. But how do children know where a healthy choice ends and where an unhealthy restriction or obsession begins? And do they really understand the nuances of why mom has decided to follow a strict gluten-free diet if she doesn’t suffer from Celiac disease? For children with low-self esteem and poor body image, are parents who restrict and regularly diet spoon-feeding them a potentially dangerous solution to their problems?
Even when our daughters – who are 10, 8 and 6 – are old enough to make their own regular food choices, what my husband and I have modeled for them will make a difference. I learned something about restrictive eating from watching my own father, who often struggled with his weight. Of course, I don’t blame him for my disorder – he never intended for his choices to be a weight loss primer for me, though sadly, they were. So knowing what I know now, it would be naive, if not irresponsible for me to think that just because I never told our daughters to restrict or to spend hours each day exercising that they wouldn’t have understood my portrayal of what constituted a healthy lifestyle. I can’t begin to think of the additional damage I could have done if I hadn’t gotten help.
To be clear, there are countless medical reasons why some parents chose restrictive diets. But when restriction or a diet becomes a way of life that starts to effect relationships and becomes an empowering tool of judgment – like it did for me – that’s not healthy.
Today, my life is monumentally better without restriction and dieting. I’m not hungry all the time, so I can think clearly. I gave up marathon running and I exercise a lot less, so I have more time to spend with my children and husband and doing the things I enjoy. I don’t devote hours of thought to what and when I’m going to eat next. Going out to eat is enjoyable just as much for the company and the experience as it is the food. But most of all, I accept my body and I’m hopeful that the healthy lifestyle I demonstrate now is the one our daughters choose to model.
I knew I was wrong to shame (and nearly restrict) the salad our daughter bought for lunch. Which is why I reconsidered my knee-jerk response and told her that salad for lunch was, indeed, a healthy choice, and that it should include cheese, meat or nuts. The protein would keep her brain nourished and focused for the rest of her school day. She smiled at my answer. “Well, I also had cheese and eggs on the salad. And I bought chicken nuggets, too.” She leaned it and added, “They were guh-ood.”
Mystery chunks were hardly the picture of ideal protein, but considering the alternative, I’ll take the nuggets.
Jennifer Kuhel is a writer who lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
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