(And how they are still affecting you today!)
Have you ever thought about why you eat the way that you do? Some food behaviors you just can’t seem to shake actually come from what you learned in childhood.
I have met with countless people who have been deeply affected by their parents’ behavior around food. This post will review some common harmful behaviors and what they can lead to.
“But Lindsay, my parents didn’t mean to hurt me!”
The point of this post is not to blame our caretakers. Many parents have the best of intentions when teaching children.
But I have to be real with you: many things passed down by generations are actually harmful towards our eating and body image. They can cause chaotic and unhelpful behaviors through adulthood.
As you read this list, notice what comes up for you. Do any of these cause a stronger reaction for you? These could be a good thing to discuss with your dietitian nutritionist or therapist.
If you experienced any of these food & body wounds from your parents, you can break the cycle!
- “The Clean Plate Club”
As a child: If your parents threatened you to finish everything on your plate no matter what – what message do you think that taught you?
The Clean Plate Club mentality leads to disregarding your bodies’ natural hunger and fullness cues.
It also leaves a trail of guilt and shame around portion sizes and meals in general.
As an adult: To this day it can be challenging to leave anything on the plate and bring up strong emotions around food waste.
- “There are starving children in Africa / China / another location”
As a child: Here we have another tactic that can increase guilt and shame as well as overriding hunger and fullness cues.
It’s just plain unhelpful, right?
Harping on the suffering of children in another country does nothing to help people who are struggling with food insecurity and may even make a young child feel scared, stressed, or personally responsible for this unjust situation.
This is not saying we do not care about the serious issues of food insecurity that happen all over the world.
As an adult: these comments lead to increased emotions (lots of guilt and shame, anger, frustration, sadness) around simple meals, food choices and food waste.
Meals are a time to nourish and care for our bodies. If we are taught to think meals are actually a time to reflect on suffering, it can lead to increased stress and dysregulation and impact digestion and healthy, positive eating behaviors.
- “My mom / dad / parent was always on a diet”
As a child: Children learn through observation. It can be confusing to see the people who care for you always following different food rules and always trying to change their body.
Being on a diet involves restriction and food rules, which can lead to side effects such as MORE thoughts about food, binging, weight fluctuations, and increased negative self worth.
Even if your parents didn’t make you go on a diet as a child, you still may have learned some harmful (or at the very least, unhelpful) messaging about nutrition, food, and bodies.
As an adult: Typically I see people with parents always on a diet with these issues (and more!):
- Viewing their body as a perpetual work in progress
- Obsession over food, labeling foods as good or bad
- Never feeling at peace in their body
- Always on a diet themselves
- “My parents commented on my body or other peoples’ bodies”
As a child: Objectification is treating a body like an object. Commenting on peoples’ bodies and ignoring all of the other complex, wonderful things about being human is objectifying.
It teaches children that it’s okay to criticize external features, and that it is normal to value aesthetics over other values.
As an adult: regular comments on bodies can lead to bad body image and self esteem, comparison, and even disordered eating.
All of these parent behaviors lead to negative consequences but the good news is: there is hope to unlearn and relearn helpful ways to think about food! It is possible to heal your relationship with food. You can break the generational chain.
It may be helpful to think about what you learned from childhood about food. What were your parents’ relationship with food like? What did they teach you, or not teach you, about food and bodies?
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