We did an elimination diet once.
We were convinced that our children reacted to certain foods, and being unsure which ones, we figured we had to either ban all suspect foods (which we’d been trying to do), or work out which ones were causing the problem. Like with most diets, we found it incredibly restrictive, and we didn’t finish the program. Like with most diets, we gained
two pounds a whole lot of baggage surrounding the issue of food. We had been slowly heading in this direction anyway, assuming that most “bad behaviour” was being caused by foods the children had eaten. The elimination diet just sealed the deal.
Food went from being something we ate, to something we thought about, restricted and controlled. It went from being a benign substance, to a powerful monster.
Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate that some people have food sensitivities. And eating those foods (if you are able to determine which ones truly do cause a genuine problem) can have annoying side effects. Then there are allergies, which obviously need to be taken much more seriously. The problem is, many people treat sensitivities and intolerances as seriously as they would if it was a life threatening allergy.
And most people also give food in general WAY too much power.
We all want the best for our children and ourselves, so many of us seek the “perfect diet”. What floats your boat? Paleo? Vegan? Vegetarian? Lacto-Ovo vegetarian? Raw? Blood type diets? Nutritional typing? Atkins? A see-food diet?
It really wasn’t meant to be this complicated! I know, I know, I can hear the cries of “But it would be different if we weren’t surrounded by all this JUNK food!”
In an ideal world, we would have easy access to an abundance of only natural foods, without the temptation of man-made or man-altered foodstuffs. But we don’t live in that world. Our children are surrounded by all sorts of food temptations, as we are. When we react to those foods with fear, judgment, lecturing, restrictions and controls, our children will no longer be able to have an unfettered relationship to food. It will become a powerful substance capable of inciting all sorts of power struggles within a family, all sorts of internal struggles and all sorts of drama and hang ups about an item that is primarily there to nourish and satisfy us.
Oh, but “sugar is addictive”! We can’t just let our children have free reign over food! All they’d eat is lollies and chocolate! They’d never eat anything other than junk food! They’d live on coke and chips!
Do you really think that’s true? Do you really think that a child living in a house filled with a wide variety of foods is going to only ever eat the “bad stuff”?
What about if there was no hierarchy of foods drummed into our children? What if it was just food? What about if they were TRULY free to choose?
Let’s say a child chooses to eat a bag of lollies for breakfast. (I’ve never heard of that happening, but I’m sure it’s possible, especially if they are never normally allowed to eat them.) Let’s say they also decide to eat a bag of lollies for lunch. What do you think they’d eat next time they were hungry? Do you really think they’d ONLY eat lollies, chips, coke and chocolate?
Chances are, they are more likely to eat those foods if they have been elevated on a pedestal and labelled “Bad” and “Forbidden”, which the child is mostly likely to interpret as “Good” and “Desirable”! Even then, they are extremely unlikely to live on a diet consisting only of “junk food”. They may binge for awhile, especially if they fear the foods will be taken away again soon, but before you know it they will develop a better relationship with food, eating when they are hungry, stopping when they are full, and choosing from a wide variety of foods.
In a research paper reviewing available data on the effects of parental feeding attitudes and styles on child nutritional behaviour, it was found that parents tend to use two primary forms of control regarding food: restriction (of junk food, and amounts of food) and pressure (to eat healthy foods or more food in general). Restriction of “junk foods” was found to have a positive outcome in the short term, but more negative effects in the long term, including increased intake of food in the absence of hunger, and a poor ability to self-regulate. Pressuring children was also found to be counter intuitive, with a further study specifically linking “pressure to eat” with a reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables. Generally, the research suggests that “In the long run, parental control attempts may have negative effects on the quality of children’s diets by reducing their preferences for those foods.” I highly recommend reading the above article (it’s not all that long, I promise!) if you want to understand some of the research showing the potential harm caused by parental good intentions when it comes to attempts at ensuring children have a “healthy diet”.
Here’s what my free-to-choose-their-own-food kids chose for breakfast today (and most days it is something very similar, with the younger two often choosing a green or fruit smoothie, or a raw breakfast of some kind; the older two teens tend to eat our home-grown organic eggs for breakfast):
Do our children eat a “perfect diet”? No.
Do I? No.
Will restrictions and fears and limitations help us eat a better diet? Maybe, for the children, for a short time (if you work VERY VERY hard at it, and are prepared to say no a lot and fight the ensuing power struggle). But at what cost? Will those restrictions, fears and limitations improve our relationship with food? Not at all. Will it improve our relationship with our children? Absolutely not.
Let’s imagine an entirely different scenario to the typical environment where parents exert a lot of restriction and pressure on their children’s food intake: Let’s fill our homes with delicious, nutritious foods, say yes when our children ask us to buy or make something in particular (unless of course there is an allergy involved), allow our children freedom of choice of all the foods in the house, and focus on our own choices rather than micromanaging theirs. Imagine a child growing up in this environment, without all the baggage and power struggles commonly associated with food.
To be honest, in our family we’re still recovering from our former experience with food controls, but I am SO glad we are on the path to true food freedom. I am so thankful for our unschooling journey, because it is due to this life of questioning the “have to’s” and trusting our children (within a context of loving, engaged parents) that I have been able to question the impact of micromanaging our children’s diets.
Does focussing on food and attempting to have lots of control over our children’s diets increase or decrease the power of food in our lives?