March is National Nutrition Month. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer with the University of Minnesota talks about what healthy eating habits are, what parents can do to encourage their kids to have healthy eating habits and more.
Q: What are healthy eating habits?
Dr. Neumark-Sztainer: Healthy eating habits involve a combination of things. One is enjoyable eating, such as eating family meals or eating at a social event. Another is intuitive eating or paying attention to our body's cues (e.g. when your body tells you you’re full to stop eating). We can also engage in mindful eating when we pay attention to what we are eating and more fully enjoy the food that we are eating. Finally, it is important to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, choose nutrient-dense foods, and avoid foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients.
Q: What are things parents can do to encourage healthy eating habits?
Dr. Neumark-Sztainer: The four cornerstones I focus on in my book “I’m, Like, SO Fat! Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World” are the following:
- Model healthy behaviors: Avoid dieting; avoid making weight-related comments; engage in regular physical activity that you enjoy; and model healthy — but not perfect — eating patterns and food choices.
- Make it easy for your children to make healthy choices: Make healthy food choices readily available; establish family meal norms that work for your family; make physical activity the norm in your family; limit TV watching; and support your child’s efforts to get involved in physical activity.
- Focus less on weight and more on behaviors and overall health: Encourage your child to adopt healthy behavior without focusing on weight loss; help your child develop an identity that goes beyond physical appearance; and establish a zero tolerance policy for weight teasing in your home.
- Be available to talk with and listen to your child: Listen and provide support when your child discusses weight concerns; when your child talks about dieting, find out what’s really going on; keep the lines of communication open no matter what; provide unconditional love, not based on weight, and let your child know how you feel.
Q: What are signs that someone may not have healthy eating habits?
Dr. Neumark-Sztainer: Unhealthy eating habits may include under- or over-eating, not consuming enough healthy food each day, or consuming too much of one type of food or drink. There may also be a change in one’s attitudes toward eating, such as not enjoying eating, fearing eating, avoiding eating with others or using food as a coping mechanism.
Think about whether there has been a change in your child’s behavior (e.g., eating, level of activity, social interactions), mood (e.g., becoming more socially withdrawn) or physical appearance (e.g., weight change). As a parent, it is not your place to decide whether your child has an eating disorder — that is for a professional. It is within your role as a parent to identify any possible problems; open doors for communication with your child; get your child to professional help for diagnosis as early as possible; and work as a collaborative player with members of the health care team if they decide treatment would be helpful.
Q: What should people do if they believe a loved one may have an eating disorder?
Dr. Neumark-Sztainer: The chance for recovery increases the earlier an eating disorder is detected. Talk to the person in a manner that shows a great deal of caring, concern about specific behaviors and firmness about the need for help. Make sure to prepare for your conversation up front, write down what you want to say and practice on someone else.
Q: What are you doing to advance research on healthy eating habits?
Dr. Neumark-Sztainer: At the University of Minnesota, we are conducting one of largest and most comprehensive studies on eating and weight in adolescents, young adults and families called Project EAT. The project involves the long-term study of two large cohorts of adolescents from the Twin Cities as they progress from adolescence through adulthood.
I currently have funding from the National Institutes of Health to learn more about how best to work with young people and families dealing with challenging life circumstances such as poverty, racism and exposure to stressful life events. We need to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our most vulnerable populations, because we are witnessing growing disparities and inequities in eating and weight-related problems. It is now clear that eating disorders influence young people from different social and ethnic/racial backgrounds and we need to learn more about how to ensure that the needs of all youth are being met.
A newer area of research that I am engaged in involves the study of yoga and how this practice can help with issues of body image, eating practices, and other measures of well-being. This interest stems from my own yoga practice and in-depth study of this practice.
Dianne Neumark-Sztainer is a professor and head of the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Her research focuses on a broad spectrum of eating and weight-related outcomes including eating disorders, unhealthy weight control behaviors, body image, dietary intake, weight stigmatization and obesity.