How to Encourage Healthy Habits in Your Family When You’ve Struggled With Disordered Eating

healthy habits"
healthy habits
Source: Becca Tapert / Unsplash
Source: Becca Tapert / Unsplash

The thought of having kids used to terrify me, and for a while, I didn’t know why. When I first became a Registered Dietitian (RD), I secretly suffered from disordered eating, which became more entrenched over time. I was ashamed and secretive about it. Eventually, it felt like an extension of me. 

Years later, I was blessed to get pregnant. During that pregnancy, I realized I didn’t care for myself—as in, I didn’t like me. I was constantly striving to be better, always looking to the future without an appreciation for the present. It’s great to have future goals, but why couldn’t I enjoy what I currently had? I wondered how I could be someone’s role model when I didn’t feel worthy of anything, when all I wanted was to press fast-forward on my life. I wondered when my “self-care” of diet and exercise became punishment rather than nurturance. How could I want the best for my children when I didn’t want the same for myself?


I wondered when my ‘self-care’ of diet and exercise became punishment rather than nurturance. How could I want the best for my children when I didn’t want the same for myself?


Because, let’s be honest, disordered eating habits are punishment—a form of self-harm sometimes sneakily marketed to us under the guise of “health” and “lifestyle changes” by diet culture. The cycle of diet culture is a major tipping point: striving for health, then getting wrapped up in destructive behaviors. What can fuel the cycle is praise based on appearance, which may actually be positive reinforcement of harmful behaviors like food restriction, overexercising, obsession with the scale, and striving for more weight loss-related compliments.

My focus began to shift and I gained clarity. Today, in the light of personal recovery and professional development, I have the pleasure of guiding others to achieve the same. If you wish to stop the generational cycle of diet culture in your family, the healing starts with you. If you want to give your child an opportunity to live free from the chaos of diet culture, you need to free yourself first. You both deserve it.

Below are some recovery core applications that I’ve implemented in my life, model for my children, and regularly work on with clients. By no means is this intended to replace individualized counseling and coaching, but it could shed light on a few perspectives you’ve not yet considered.


Reframing Negative Thoughts and Statements

The way you speak to yourself matters. We have thousands of automatic thoughts daily. These can include negative thoughts about your body when you look in a mirror, reach for a bagel, pull on pants, or lather soap on yourself in the shower. Reframing involves slowing down your self-talk so you can observe how you’re speaking to yourself. It can feel clunky at first, like learning a new language.

Over time and with consistent effort, you may naturally converse in kinder language without thinking. The same goes for internal dialogue: Your thought process will simply be different and less destructive. You weren’t born with negative thoughts—those were learned behaviors, so giving yourself the opportunity to unlearn what doesn’t serve you to make room for new behaviors is entirely possible.



Practicing Food and Body Neutrality

The body positivity movement (finally!) is wonderful, but what if you aren’t ready for it? What if body positivity feels too far out of reach? What if you can’t look at a bagel without a nasty voice in your head deterring that choice? 

You aren’t broken. Pretending to love your body won’t improve your body image. Pretending can actually make it worse. If you’ve been in a cycle of body shaming for a long time, body neutrality may be a more realistic goal. Instead of “I love my legs,” a neutral phrase could be “my legs take me where I need to go.” It’s a true statement that is neither destructive nor falsely positive. If you choose to speak to a child about their body, keeping it neutral can reinforce that they’re more than their body. Their worth is not based on their appearance and physical characteristics.

Many find that sharing eating experiences with their children is a wonderful way to observe food neutrality. Before exposure to diet culture, children eat because they’re hungry and can rely on their innate hunger cues—no fretting over what time it is, macros, or calories. Children eat without wondering how to compensate for it later in the day. Food to children is not a means of controlling or changing their bodies. Guilt is not an ingredient and there is no morality attached to one’s food choices. Food is food (neutral). It can be this way for you, too. 


Having Gentle Curiosity

This has a tad to do with reframing but deserves its own section because it’s not just about thoughts. It’s about how you speak to yourself and others and how you perceive what you observe. What can the world teach you? 

Think about how you respond when asked a question in a demeaning, belittling tone, how you respond to questions when you feel guilt, or how your child responds to anyone addressing them with a harsh tone. Not great, right? Maybe there’s slumped body language, a hung head, averted eyes, or a ball of shame deep in the throat or chest (or all of the above). Now, consider how you or someone would respond if a question is posed with gentle curiosity, open-ended questions with no assumptions or expectations, or a neutral or gentle tone.



Easier said than done, right? Here’s how you could apply it today: Get curious about the intent of an action if you’re assessing yourself. Intent is an important differentiation when determining the root of an action. Take strenuous workouts, for example. For some, a strenuous workout feels stressful and draining—a penance for something. For others, a strenuous workout is exhilarating and it makes them feel powerful. What it comes down to is how a person feels about a particular activity and what their intent is when engaging in it. 

So consider your intent when it comes to talking about food with children. Is your discussion stemming from an enjoyment of food or fear and worry about weight or your troubled past with food?

If you have a history of dieting and disordered eating, it’s natural to have dissonance when it comes to these applications. We are born intuitive eaters, but repeated exposure to diet culture and disordered eating takes us away from that. With time, you can get back to your roots.


Making Peace With Your Body Is Possible

There is no failure, just discovery and learning. Progress is progress. Peace with food requires peace with your body. Emphasize what your body can do. You can stop the legacy of diet culture in your family. You deserve to feel at home in your body. There is strength in asking for help.

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