And so before I delve into this, I ask you: what were you taught about eating, growing up and what do you teach now that you are a parent?
I was thrilled to be invited to talk to year 11 girls at MacRob High School the other day. This is such a beautiful school with some of the highest achievers in Victoria. I was told to expect the girls to be lovely and switched on. They were awesome.
As you can imagine, they had multiple questions about nutrition, health, weight, dieting and eating disorders. They were also very interested in the angle I take coming from a European (French) culture. I absolutely loved talking to these young ladies who are smart and wise beyond their years. However, it is a big responsibility talking to young people in their formative years, I take it very seriously.
This is what I warned the girls about:
Clean eating & other questionable eating trends
Wellness warriors on social media look stunning and glamorous to their hundreds of thousands of followers. They often start eating trends yet have no formal nutrition training! Clean eating is a good example of a trend that can potentially lead to a follower developing an eating disorder. In this case followers start ruling out many foods and become obsessed about clean eating and detoxes (orthorexia). The girls had not heard of orthorexia. Whilst the influencers on social media may seem physically appealing, following their dieting trends may ultimately produce unhealthy eating habits. This is the opposite to the desired outcome; becoming healthy psychologically and physically.
Our health obsession in this country
I told the girls about an episode of the show Insight, (on SBS), which puts our health obsessions into perspective. Sure enough, health authorities would like the Australian public to eat more healthily. I am, of course, in favour of people eating a variety of good, fresh, unprocessed foods. However, I am 100% convinced that having this dichotomy of healthy versus junk is not helpful. It creates confusion and guilt. Those who are struggling with weight or body image issues are more at risk of developing eating disorders. I explained how the French approach to eating food starts with a routine, which enables you to answer to your hunger. According to Social scientist Claude Fischler, “French eating is not as defined by dietetics as eating is in the US, yet the US has a much higher prevalence of obesity”. I couldn’t agree more, this whole idea of eating for health doesn’t work, I see it all the time with the families I work with. You cannot feed fussy eaters for health, and asking them to do so is counter productive because they are more likely to develop preferences for those very foods you would like them to eat less of.
Diets. Diets fail people. Many of us are concerned about managing and losing our weight, the girls were no different. However, starting dieting during teenage years is a mistake, “teenagers who diet in ninth grade (around 15 years of age) are three times more likely than non-dieters to be overweight by 12th grade”. Over the course of their lives, yoyo dieters, lose weight and put it back on often with extra kilos. They constantly experience feelings of failure and helplessness which is unfair because diets have shown to fail 95% of people. When dieting, neurological and physiological adaptations in the body kick in that make it almost impossible to keep the weight off. At a vulnerable age, when pressures to be thin or thinner are numerous, dieting can open the door to a lifelong battle with weight, or worse, an eating disorder. In fact, according to Stanford University School of Medicine, 40% of eating disorders started with a diet that got out of control.
This is what I told the girls to do instead:
We should be eating a great variety of food and enjoying conviviality at mealtimes. I explained the difference between eating for hunger or eating for other reasons (such as boredom, loneliness etc). To finally put a nail to the coffin of dieting, I explained that everyone one has a different set point, a stable weight that matches their genetics. We can maintain it by having a good balance between how much we eat and how much we exercise.
These are 8 tips I hope the girls can keep in mind throughout their lives:
- Eat with hunger,
- Avoid grazing and have regular meals,
- Eat slowly,
- Enjoy your eating experience (with tasty foods and conviviality),
- Eat a variety of foods,
- Learn to prepare and cook foods,
- Avoid eating past your satiety,
- Exercise every day, even in simplest trivial ways (e.g. walking a bit longer before you use public transport).
These adjustments are lifestyle changes that produce a simple life long outcome: a healthy relationship with food and eating.