The table is a meeting place, not a battlefield The table is a meeting place, not a battlefield

Phrases about children’s body image, contrary to being constructive, promote conflicting relationships with food. Encourage balanced nutrition from a young age.

Juliana Ramírez
Nutritionist dietician, certification in Children and Addressing Eating Disorders

Just as you remember your favorite toys, childhood friends, favorite TV shows, and grandmother’s delicious recipes, there are many events in your memory from childhood, and from then on begin to weave into aspects of adult life, including your relationship with food.

“You’re too skinny…You’re too fat…You can’t eat that! You are the chubby one in the house,” labeling children by their body shape affects the long-term development of various eating disorders. This is how nutritionist and dietician Juliana Ramirez, an expert in dealing with these nutritional disorders, explains it. “The words fat and thin are loaded with many things. As parents or caregivers, we must avoid talking about diet and image all the time,” she states.

Expressions like this can encourage conflicting behaviors around eating, such as children starting to restrict their food or hiding to eat. And a fundamental fact is that their self-esteem is also affected. “We are seeing many cases of anorexia, increasingly at younger ages. We are giving a lot of attention to the figure and food. Several patients reach these disorders as a result of things they have been told all their lives,” says the nutritionist.

Respect natural processes

Sometimes, the table becomes a battlefield and dinnertime becomes a nightmare for the little ones. “When we force children to eat, we turn that meal into a power exercise, and we start to cause a bad relationship with food,” comments nutritionist Juliana Ramírez. The specialist also emphasizes that parents and caregivers have the responsibility to choose what is served, how, where, and when. But in the end, the child chooses what and how much to eat from that dish. This is where factors of hunger and fullness come into play.

These two feelings in the body are innate and different in each individual. They indicate whether food is needed or if it was enough. Respecting them and not forcing them is vital in preventing eating disorders and in creating good eating habits. “Nor is it about promoting obesity, for example, or encouraging conditions at home that make the child obese. But we do understand that some children are bigger than others. The goal is not that the shorter kids are reaching heavier weights and the taller ones are weighing less than they should,” states the nutritionist.

Set an example

In short, example and imitation are fundamental keys to cultivating healthy habits. “I learn what I see in my parents. If I am served broccoli and my mom is eating pizza, I might eat it that time, but I will not learn by imitation. I will learn by obligation or because I am rewarded,” concludes Ramírez.

1 in every 5 children in Latin America suffers from some type of malnutrition, states the UNICEF food security outlook (2019).

There are many factors involved in nutrition. Acts of restraint can trigger disorders by creating feelings of unworthiness and feelings of inadequacy.

Guidelines for promoting balanced nutrition

  •  Know which basic guidelines, such as eating fruits and vegetables, apply to the whole family and not just children.
  • Establish a routine with specific times and places for food.
  • It is important that meals be a family affair. Make sure that food is not the topic of conversation, but a variety of other topics.
  • Explain food groups to children and which ones are considered to be the most important to nourish them. Avoid labeling them as healthy or unhealthy, good or bad.
  • Try to help children learn to manage their food through feelings of hunger and fullness.  Let this be a natural process, also flexible.
  • Avoid constantly commenting on body image, especially in a negative way. Give your children positive compliments focusing on their talents and abilities.