As babies all of us send out many cues that kept us alive and healthy. Some of these are messages around sleep, temperature control and pain and hunger. Hunger is an internal cue from our body that tells us we need nourishment. Mary Pipher PhD, in her book Hunger Pains, writes that hunger pangs are a survival tool; after a certain point starving people no longer feel hunger. When this happens they are close to death.
People make decisions about eating in two fundamentally different ways. One is by an awareness of how one’s stomach feels and the other is wanting to eat in response to the sight, smell or thought of food. Eating in response to an empty stomach is an internal cue, eating in response to anything else is external. So there is eating in response to true hunger and then there is eating in response to appetite; ‘I just feel like it’.
All of us eat in response to our appetite to some extent, e.g. we eat at mealtimes with our families even when we are not that hungry. It is when we rely almost entirely on external cues that we run into trouble. Research has shown that externally controlled eaters are more likely to be obese than internally controlled eaters. Their eating habits are more easily manipulated than those of the latter.
So, with the abundance of food cues in our society, how do we pass on healthy messages about food to our children?
Firstly, it is important to help our children to learn to discriminate between hunger and other internal states. Some children can easily confuse anxiety, boredom, loneliness and anger with hunger. Well meaning parents can further add to this confusion by using food as a pacifier or as a reward for good behaviour. Here we are teaching them that food is a multi-purpose solution to any situation. It is important from a young age to teach children to pay attention to their stomachs and to ignore the manipulation of others, even ourselves. They do not have to become a member of the ‘clean plate club’ or eat for all the starving children in Africa!
As parents we need to de-emphasise the importance of physical appearance in how we describe and evaluate ourselves, our children and others. We need to emphasise other characteristics such as intelligence, good humour, talent ect.
Boys somehow seem to have an easier time as we teach them that their bodies are useful and can be used for many purposes, eg. work or athletics. Stereotypically girls, on the other hand, are constantly being told that their appearance is what matters. If we want our daughters to believe otherwise we need to work to counteract our culture’s propaganda which defines physical attractiveness in a very narrow way.
It seems then that we should be teaching our children to only eat when they are truly hungry and that how they look should not be that important. In reality however, as an adult, a positive body image is important and can greatly contribute to one’s overall self esteem. If we can therefore find a middle ground by enabling our children to use food for the purpose it was intended, nourishment, and assist them in understanding that the way we look is only one part of the way we define ourselves, we can hopefully send them into adult life uncluttered with illness, both physical and emotional, that is food related.