Our relationship with food is broken – here's how to fix it

·18 min read
While issues with food and eating can cause problems with weight, there are other, more insidious consequences of a poor diet - Lauren Mortimer
While issues with food and eating can cause problems with weight, there are other, more insidious consequences of a poor diet - Lauren Mortimer

When it comes to attitudes towards food, these are incredibly polarised times. Britain has been engulfed by a childhood obesity crisis, with one in four 10- and 11-year-olds officially obese. However, recent research suggests that attempts to lose weight among all children – even those of a healthy weight – are now outpacing rising weight gain levels in their respective age groups.

A study of 34,235 children aged between eight and 17 – part of the Health Survey for England from 1997 to 2016 led by the University of Oxford – found that by the end of the study period, one in four children in England were on a diet. One in seven of these were at what is considered a healthy weight with no need to slim down. The figure has tripled since 1997.

“Overall, we saw that the number of children reporting weight-loss attempts is growing at a faster rate than the rise in excess weight,” said Dr Aryati Ahmad, a co-lead author on the study.

“Alarmingly, the data also showed that an increasing proportion of children with a healthy weight also reported trying to lose weight. This raises concerns and suggests greater attention is needed to target weight-control messages appropriately.”

On the other hand, public health experts are calling for “urgent limits” to be put on the amount of ultra-processed foods served in schools after recent research found they make up the majority of school meals at primary and secondary level. A staggering 64 per cent of calories provided by lunchtime meals at school are from ultra-processed meals, which tend to be higher in salt, sugar, fat and additives linked to poor health such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.

64 per cent of calories provided by lunchtime meals at school are from ultra-processed meals - Getty
64 per cent of calories provided by lunchtime meals at school are from ultra-processed meals - Getty

Psychologically too, ideals around food and body image are confused. In these supposedly “body positive” times, tens of thousands still worship at the prime-time altar to the six pack that is ITV’s beach-based dating show Love Island. How did these conflicting messages around food and body image become the norm, and what is it doing to society as a whole?

Rebecca Sparkes is a psychotherapist and counsellor with more than 15 years of experience in dealing with eating disorders and addiction issues (rebeccasparkes.com). She says a large part of the problem is that “neither society nor government policy ever looks at how family culture evolves around food, nor at how food behaviours and messages around body image are passed down – whether that’s judgments around being overweight or normalising or excusing unhealthy behaviours”.

She adds: “Even parents who have a healthy level of self-awareness must take care not to dish out toxic messages around these issues. There is a very primitive association with love and comfort around food, but we have to stop using what we eat as an emotional comforter or a way to pacify kids.”

Sparkes also believes that Britons’ reliance on “highly-addictive snack foods laden with refined white sugar designed to set up cravings for more of the same” is another part of the problem. “The trouble is, eating these foods is a learned behaviour for many adults – it’s how they themselves were raised,” she says.

“Laziness and financial constraints do play a part as well: these foods are often convenient and cheap.”

Eating high-sugar foods is often a learned behaviour for adults in Britain, who grew up eating them - Getty
Eating high-sugar foods is often a learned behaviour for adults in Britain, who grew up eating them - Getty

Sarah Almond Bushell is a registered dietitian and a children’s nutritionist with more than 20 years of NHS and private practice experience of working with families. She says our food relationships “come from how we were brought up around food by our parents” and because of this, feeding our children can be challenging.

“Feeding is highly emotive,” says Almond Bushell, a mother of two. “It is one of the fundamentals of parenting – particularly for mothers, due to their maternal drive to nourish children. When it goes wrong it can be emotionally triggering.”

While issues with food and eating can cause problems with weight, there are other, more insidious consequences of a poor diet. “Children who don’t eat enough tend not to sleep well, waking through the night out of hunger,” she says. “They have a poor immune system and pick up coughs, colds and all the bugs flying around school.

“There’s also often a lack of energy, so they are too tired to join in. Long term, we see nutritional deficiencies – iron deficiency is the most common. Also poor growth, inadequate weight gain or over reliance on supplements to maintain health. If they haven’t had enough energy to play, we sometimes see bone health issues and fractures through lack of exercise.”

Strategies parents put in place to get children to eat can also have long-term mental health consequences on youngsters. “These include emotional eating, overeating and sometimes disordered eating,” says Almond Bushell.

Here, three mothers tell us about their attitude to eating, while Sparkes and Almond Bushell explain how to encourage a healthy relationship with food, whatever your age.

‘It’s unrealistic to cut all cakes and treats out of your diet, but we keep it in moderation’

Kate Cadbury, 40, chartered physiotherapist and Pilates instructor from Poole in Dorset

It helps to ensure that I am eating enough to fuel the running and cycling training I do three times a week - Andrew Crowley
It helps to ensure that I am eating enough to fuel the running and cycling training I do three times a week - Andrew Crowley

I have a very positive relationship with food that I attribute to my upbringing and which I am now passing on to my two children, Joshie, 10, and Sophie, 8 (pictured right with family dog, Inca).

I have been around 50kg (7st 10lbs) and a dress size 6-8 my entire adult life (aside from during my pregnancies). I like to eat a balanced diet and have the approach of “everything in moderation”. This comes from my experience as a child growing up in a little village in north Dorset. My father was a GP and my mum provided healthy, balanced and varied meals for us as a family. My older sister and I always ate together and our meal times were a social occasion when we would all catch up and have good chats.

Nowadays, people have such busy lives that they struggle to eat together as a family and find it hard to have the time to prepare home-cooked meals and snacks; some of my children’s peers tend to not have such a balanced, healthy diet and eat less variety – a lot of them could be considered “fussy eaters”.

My mum never denied us anything but always encouraged us to choose the healthier options. We would be encouraged to eat our meals, though never forced to, but we knew if we didn’t finish our dinner we wouldn’t get fruit and yoghurt for dessert.

I maintain the same principles with my own children. If they say they are full and have eaten what I would consider a good portion, or if they have tried something new and say they don’t like it, then they can have fruit and yoghurt for dessert. However if they say they are full but have quite clearly only eaten a very small amount of their main meal, I don’t allow them dessert.

The children love cooking. They have a say in what we have for dinner and we also grow our own vegetables and some fruit together, so they can see where the food comes from and have more of an interest in it. This doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy cakes and treats, however – I think it is unrealistic to cut all of those foods out of your diet – but we keep it in moderation.

In recent years I have focused more on my own nutrition to help with my sports – I am a Pilates teacher (cadburypilates.com) and a duathlete with Team GB. It helps to ensure that I am eating enough to fuel the running and cycling training I do three times a week for duathlon. I am also training to take part in the London Marathon in October.

I now eat far more protein, especially on days when I have had a bigger training session, as it helps with my recovery. I know that if you don’t eat enough of the right foods, you can’t train effectively and do what you love.

‘I think of the body like a car – the fuel that you put in it has to be used up’

Aliza Reger, 60, businesswoman from London

I would say I have a very old fashioned attitude to food: I eat pretty much everything - Jabphotography/Shutterstock
I would say I have a very old fashioned attitude to food: I eat pretty much everything - Jabphotography/Shutterstock

Although my mother Janet Reger ran a very successful lingerie business while I was growing up, we always ate breakfast and dinner around the table as a family. That’s something I did with my daughter Annoushka, who is now 28. I was never forced to “clear my plate”, but I was encouraged to always eat something and I did the same with her. For this reason we were careful to avoid food she didn’t like, such as cauliflower (for me it is asparagus). It meant mealtimes were not a battleground.

I would say I have a very old fashioned attitude to food: I eat pretty much everything; no food fads to speak of; no allergies. I eat carbohydrates, chocolate, ice cream, bread, pasta ... but I don’t eat a huge amount and rarely have three meals a day.

What and when I eat depends on what is happening in my day: if I have a madly busy day, I will have some breakfast but then nothing until dinner time. If I’m working from home, I probably won’t have breakfast, but I will have lunch and an evening meal. I don’t starve myself and I eat regularly – I’ll have an apple or something if I feel hungry. Dinner is our main meal, but we don’t eat late at night. Alcohol is reserved for weekends, or if I’m out for dinner I’ll have one glass. As a family we don’t have takeaways or ready meals: that’s how I was raised and how I raised my child, too.

I admit that there is an element of vanity to my approach to food. I’m small – 5ft and a bit – and I weigh between 50 and 51kg (7st 10lbs and 8st). I’m a size 8 and I want to remain so, which is why I watch what I eat. I don’t have an eating disorder – I enjoy my food – but I just consume it in moderation and I exercise too. I say that’s my tool for coping with life.

My favourite treat is Leonidas chocolates and I can polish off a box at Christmas. Everything in life is about balance and I think of the body like a car: the “fuel” that you put in has to be used up.

Annoushka is also a moderate eater. She knows what eating healthily means and she watches her sugar intake. Of course, food is love; food is a treat – but if she wants an ice cream, she will have a scoop, not a whole tub in front of the TV in the evening.

‘I was bullied and I want to shield my son from negativity about body image and food’

Jude Clay, 39, works for a charity in Basingstoke

The problems I have had with my weight from my early teens have never really left me - Andrew Crowley
The problems I have had with my weight from my early teens have never really left me - Andrew Crowley

I put on a lot of weight when I hit puberty at age 10 or 11 and went up to a size 16. I had previously been an active child – I did dance classes and rode my bike everywhere – but that all stopped. At about the same time I changed schools and began getting mercilessly bullied because of my weight. It was devastating.

One particular group of children pulled a chair out from under me when I went to sit down in class and I fell on the floor, really injuring my lower back. I had to go for an X-ray and although there was no obvious major damage, I still suffer with lower back pain to this day. It’s something of a constant reminder of those awful times.

My family were supportive, but at around age 12, I decided to take control of my weight as it was negatively affecting my life and confidence. I started exercising more and being careful with what I ate and lost weight (I went down to a size eight) before starting studying for my GCSEs. Then, when I was at college aged 17 or 18, my weight crept up again, and again I began to get teased.

Since then, my weight has fluctuated through different life stages and emotions: I went up to a size 14 when I got into a comfortable relationship. I then went down to an 8-10 when I got divorced four years ago when my son – who is now six – was two.

The problems I have had with my weight from my early teens have never really left me. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’ve ever had a serious eating disorder, I have skipped meals to lose weight; sometimes I have obsessively exercised and, to this day, I calorie count. I struggle to indulge. When I think about having a pudding, I worry about the impact of it and know I’ll feel bad afterwards, so I tend to avoid them.

I’m trying to model a different relationship with food for my own son. He began learning about healthy eating at his pre-school and that continued in primary school. It is something I have explained at home, too: how food is important to help our bodies to grow.

When I grew up, many people’s mothers were on diets or watching their weight. Now, thankfully, there’s more of a culture of healthy eating and promoting body confidence. While I feel a huge responsibility to shield my son from negativity surrounding body image and food, I make sure not to deny him having a biscuit with a drink of milk or an ice cream in the park. I’m happy to say, I think it is working. He has a great appetite and is always happy to try new things – he loves olives, for example.

I know that this may not always be the case as he grows up, but hopefully, by talking about why some foods are good for you and others are a treat, I have laid a solid foundation for him to have a healthy relationship with food.

How to have a healthy relationship with food, whatever your age

Toddlers

Kids have a preference for sweet foods and often request them, which leads parents to worry that they will become overweight - Lauren Mortimer
Kids have a preference for sweet foods and often request them, which leads parents to worry that they will become overweight - Lauren Mortimer

The most common dietary concerns among parents of toddlers relate to quantity and quality: they fear that their children are not either eating enough or are eating the wrong things, says Sarah Almond Bushell. “Sometimes it’s volume, other times it’s variety. Some children have a limited range of accepted food and parents worry they won’t get enough nutrients.”

On the flip side, some parents fear their child is eating too much food. “Kids do have a preference for sweet foods and often request them, which leads parents to worry that they will become overweight,” she says.

The answer is surprisingly simple: trust them to know how much they want to eat. “It’s crucial to let them stop when they say they are full,” she says. “Toddlers have great self-regulation when we don’t override it.”

Don’t forbid ‘fun’ foods

Almond Bushell cautions against policing, however. She often sees parents who restrict their children’s eating and forbid “fun” items such as sweets, chocolate, biscuits and cake – but this can often backfire.

“The knock-on effect of restriction is fixation on the restricted food, which can lead to overindulgence and children carrying additional weight,” she says.

“Long term, we know kids who were restricted become teens and adults who feel guilty and shameful when eating foods they learned were forbidden. And restricting foods like chocolate or ice cream only serves to make them more desirable – young children won’t be able to help themselves; they’ll overindulge whenever the occasion arises.”

Stick to a schedule

Routine is important to little ones and Almond Bushell advises providing “a rhythm to meals and snacks throughout the day so they are predictable”.

Choose foods for toddlers, but allow them control elsewhere

Parents should decide what is on the menu, says the dietitian, but an element of independence is also important: “Trust children to choose the order they eat their food in.”

Encourage an interest in all areas of food

Almond Bushell says this life stage is also a good time to foster an interest in food – both making and eating it. “Get them involved with food shopping, cooking and self-serving,” she says. “It’s all about familiarising kids with the sensory experience of food.”

Avoid judgmental language around food and image

Rebecca Sparkes cautions that the language we use when discussing food around our children is crucial. “Talk about ‘healthier choices’ rather than food being ‘bad’ or ‘good’,” the psychotherapist says. “Avoid describing people as ‘fat’ or ‘thin’ or discussing slimming and dieting.

“Also, focus on talking to your children about their feelings and their emotional world. Being able to express emotions rather than smothering them with food or ‘treats’ models something really important for them.”

Tweens

Showing rather than telling is a great way of teaching healthy eating - Lauren Mortimer
Showing rather than telling is a great way of teaching healthy eating - Lauren Mortimer

Eat together when possible

This allows children to emulate their parents’ behaviours and choices around food. Children’s nutritionist Sarah Almond Bushell says that showing rather than telling “is a great way of teaching healthy eating without it coming across as nagging”.

She adds: “There is also some strong evidence that shows older children who eat together with their parents are less likely to indulge in risk-taking behaviours such as drinking alcohol, smoking or taking drugs.”

Give them autonomy

Encourage older children to cook as often as possible. “Let them be in charge of the menu and get dinner on the table once a week,” Almond Bushell advises. “As well as practicing kitchen skills, this is a great way to show your teen or tween that you trust their food decisions.”

Don’t force children to finish food

In her dietitian practice, Almond Bushell works with families to identify where feeding practices come from. “Often parents simply do what was done to them – for example, asking children to ‘clear your plate’ at mealtimes, when kids don’t want to. This made sense in the past when we didn’t always know when the next meal was coming, but now food is abundant: we eat three meals per day, plus snacks, and yet parents still ask their children to eat everything, which is often beyond their appetite.”

Research has shown that children who are often encouraged by their parents to eat more when they have had enough are overriding their brain’s natural impulses around when to stop eating. This stops the receptors telling them they are full from working properly and can lead to overeating later in life.

Seek help if mealtimes are a battleground

While Almond Bushell explains that most young children go through a difficult feeding phase, she says that if parents find themselves “really frustrated, frequently reminding their children to eat, restricting foods often or if mealtimes feel more like battlegrounds”, they need to seek professional advice.

“Likewise children need professional support when the list of foods they accept drops under 20, or if they aren’t gaining weight or growing out of their clothes, or are reliant on nutritional supplements.”

Adults

Restrictions around food are not always based in healthy notions - Lauren Mortimer
Restrictions around food are not always based in healthy notions - Lauren Mortimer

Don’t use food to suppress negative emotions

“Just as we have to stop parenting our children with excess food, we have to stop doing that to ourselves as adults, too,” says psychotherapist and addictions counsellor Rebecca Sparkes. “If, as a society, we become wise to the dangers of suppressing difficult feelings through eating to excess, we can encourage our children to do the same.”

Examine your food values

Analyse where restrictive food beliefs come from, says dietician Sarah Almond Bushell. Do you have rules like only having a glass of wine when you’ve “earned it” or restrictions such as not eating pudding even if you really want it? Think about whether you want your child to grow up living by these beliefs. If not, let them go.

Get help

If you don’t know how to do what’s best to help your child and their growing food relationships, seek expert advice.