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updated: 9/6/2013 1:35 PM

Building a healthy body image

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  • Instead of talking about a "diet" with your children, talk about food being fuel for your body.

    Instead of talking about a "diet" with your children, talk about food being fuel for your body.

By Christina Fitzgerald

One day you're begging your muddy, sandy preschooler to take a bath, and then before you know it, you're begging them to not spend so much time primping in the bathroom. When did that happen? How did that happen?

For so many of us, we spend the toddler and preschool years worrying that our kids are eating too much, not eating enough, or eating all the wrong foods that we overlook the importance of teaching them how to appreciate their body in all shapes and forms. While it's completely natural for kids to become aware of their own body as well as their peers, the ground work you lay for them plays a big factor on how they cope with this new body awareness now and in the future.

Having a healthy body image means that most of your feelings, ideas and opinions about your body and appearance are positive. It means accepting and appreciating your body and feeling mostly satisfied with your appearance. Unfortunately, it seems that kids are struggling more and more these days. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 42 percent of first- to third-graders wish to be thinner while 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Despite those stats, it is still important to talk to your kids about healthy foods, but how you portray both yourself and food can make the difference in their body image.

It sometimes takes my 5-year-old threatening a time-out on my 3-year-old to remind me on how much of their behavior is shaped by imitating our behavior, the good with the bad. As parents, there are a few things that can be done on a daily basis to help model positive body image:

• Avoid negative statements about your own or others' weight or body shape.

• Compliment your child on their talents, accomplishments and values as opposed to their outside beauty.

• Model the strength of your body through regular family physical activities.

Even if you model healthy body image, weight issues may still be present in the family and how you address weight and food while minimizing "dieting" can be tricky. Here are a few ways I approach this topic with kids:

• Starting food changes in the house: First, it's never referred to as a diet. Instead, the discussion is strictly around the idea of using foods that fuel the body and make it stronger and faster. For younger kids, this analogy works great: What do you put in a car to help it go? Gas. If mom and dad are driving you all over and don't stop to put gas in the car? The car will stop and not work. What if they tried to put dirt in the car instead of gas? The car won't work. Healthy food, like whole grains/fruits/veggies, is the gas that your body needs to help it run, play and think. Without this gas, your body won't work as well.

• Noticeable weight gain or loss: With kids, using the scale number as a positive or negative reinforcement does not work well as they can't fully grasp all that can affect their weight. Instead, focus on what they're able to do differently now. Can they run faster on the soccer field? Shoot the ball harder? Focus on these abilities instead of a number on the scale, the size they wear, or the shape of their body.

• Emotional eating: It's easy to want to give your sad child a cupcake to help put a smile back on their face, but this teaches them to turn toward food when they're sad, happy or stressed. Instead, encourage them to share their feelings about their weight and just listen and validate them. Remind them of how special they are and how much they are loved, this helps them accept themselves and others at any shape or weight.

Children are amazing learners so be an amazing role model and the family will be on the right track!

Contact me: If you have any feedback, comments or questions on this topic or any others, I would love to hear from you! You can send me an email at with your thoughts.

•Christina Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, is the owner of Nourished, Nutrition and Wellness, She lives with her husband and three young sons in the Northwest suburbs.

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