5 Reasons This Dietitian Isn’t Raising Her Girls to Be “Healthy” Eaters


Whenever another parent finds out I’m a dietitian, I inevitably hear an enthusiastic and reverent, “Oh, your girls must be such healthy eaters!” minutes later.

Am I proud? Are they right? Nope and not exactly—not in the way they usually mean it, at least!

While I do want my girls to eat well, I’ve learned something from the many teen girls I’ve worked with: Being labeled a “healthy eater” is an sh$t ton of pressure, whether we realize it or not!

In fact, I’ve found that downplaying the whole “healthy eater” thing has some major benefits. For example, kids who feel free to enjoy their food without worrying about how healthy it is tend to enjoy a wider variety of foods (ie they get a lot more vitamins and minerals!).

They also tend to feel more positive (ie they experience less guilt and internal conflict) about their food choices and their bodies. Plus, they’re less susceptible to having a dysfunctional relationship with food.

Good stuff, right?

With that in mind, I work hard to avoid putting the pressure of healthy eating on my own girls and I encourage the parents I work with to do the same.

How do you explain healthy eating to a child?

Here’s my surprising recommendation: you don’t! The more we talk about and focus on eating healthy, the harder time our kids have doing it!

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Once you start to understand what the term means and feels like to kids—and even us adults—I think you’ll agree that covering y our kids’ ears when it comes to conversations about “healthy eating” isn’t just a good idea—it’s necessary! Here are my top five reasons why… 

  1. Healthy doesn’t mean what we think it means

When I asked my nine-year-old what healthy means she responded, “It means you aren’t sick and you don’t eat foods that come in a package, like pretzels.” Um, no. No, it doesn’t.

She’s not the only one with a narrow view. When I asked the same question of a 13-year-old client with type 2 diabetes, she answered, “It means you do lots of workouts and aren’t obese.”  And when a father of three came to me for nutrition counseling this week, he shared, “It’s being active and avoiding processed foods like refined carbs and eating a diet high in vegetables. And probably having a good relationship with your kids.” Okay; a smidge better yet not quite right.

According to the largest global organization dedicated to eradicating disease, being healthy means being in a state of complete emotional, social and physical wellbeing

If I tell my daughters (or clients or patients) that we’re going to work on being healthy, there’s a good chance they’re going to assume that I want them to try harder to limit their eating to a narrow set of foods, to lose weight or to spend a lot more time exercising. (Oh, and to avoid pretzels–food, by the way, I often offer my daughter as a snack.) 

2. Healthy feels like pressure 

Whenever I bring up the topic of healthy eating with girls or groups of kids I work with, it’s a surefire way to bring the energy in the room down, down, down. Eyes start looking at the floor, shoulders round and a distinct feeling of remorse starts floating through the air. The underlying feeling: I’m not good at this.

If girls believe in the narrow (and popular) version of healthy—one that promotes pursuing physical health at the expense of enjoying food and spending time with friends, most of them are going to feel like failures.

Feeling like you need to fit into a limited set of ideals with regard to food selection and activity day-in-and-day-out puts a negative type of pressure on our girls—and ourselves. And it can feel particularly shameful if we don’t enjoy those foods or activities or have the time or resources to buy or achieve them.

Sticking to the limited notion of healthy when it comes to eating makes most of us miserable. And it’s important to note that the more rules we pack on (ie gluten-free, dairy-free, organic), the worse it is.

3. Healthy is a loaded word  

When I ask my clients why they’re coming in for nutrition counseling, what I hear most often is, “We want to be healthy” and thus it prompts me to ask this as a follow-up, “What does healthy mean to you?”

The second question is the eye-opener. I’ve discovered that the notions most pre-teen and teenage girls have about being healthy are extremely rigid and unforgiving. Over and over they tell me that being healthy means ‘being vegetarian,’ ‘being thin’, ’ ‘having a flat belly, ‘drinking water,’ and ‘working out.’

At its best, the word healthy can be ambiguous. And at its worst, healthy implies a narrow set of rules about food selection, body shape, and activity levels. 

4. Healthy steals joy 

Just ask my daughter (again, an illuminating source in my quest to understand eating!). A few months ago, we had the rare treat of being together just the two of us. We took a stroll through our town and she got really excited about the idea of stopping at the upscale bakery for a treat. We took a moment to sit on a bench and indulge in a beautiful little homemade whoopie pie. The cream was creamy and the chocolate cake was moist and chocolatey. It was a beautiful thing. On the walk back she whispered, “I really wish I didn’t eat that.” The warm feelings that’d been swirling around my heart immediately morphed into tiny bricks and dropped at once into the pick of my stomach.

I stopped and looked at her. “What do you mean?” I pressed, waiting in vain for her to say she wished she’d saved half for her sister. Nope. Silence. Whatever it was, she couldn’t say it. So, I went there, hoping against hope that she didn’t mean what I feared most. “You enjoyed it! Didn’t you?” I tried to remind her. “But I shouldn’t. I wish I didn’t. It’s too much sugar.”

Wham. Bam. Ouch. Ick. Please no. “Eating sugar can be healthy, too!” I blurted, realizing that I had a lot of heavy lifting to do. “Enjoying something delicious with someone you love is a way to take care of yourself!” From there, I vowed to work on broadening the word healthy in her mind as much as my own.   

5. Healthy mucks up hunger 

Healthy puts a lot of strain and stress on eating, according to leading children’s eating experts. Despite what we hear over and over from diet, fitness, and health professionals, regulating your food intake is not something we are meant to think our way through; rather it is something we need to feel.

When we eat within constraints (ie I should eat this much and it should only be these foods, not those) we use our brain, not our body, to tell us which foods to choose and when to start and stop. And according to research, that approach really mucks things up.

If we succeed at sticking to the rules, we usually leave a meal feeling deprived, unhappy or unsatisfied. And if we don’t—say we eat more because we’re hungry for it or choose a food that’s taboo because we enjoy it—we feel guilty, shameful and defeated. In other words, using your body—not your brain—to know when you’ve eaten enough to feel satisfied is linked with well-being, or health in the truest sense of the word.

As a dietitian and mom, I’m trying my best to remember that for most people (my girls included!) the word “health” has been misappropriated and now means a very narrow thing. I want to avoid pressuring my girls, my clients, and even myself to eat or behave in a way that promotes physical health at the expense of everything else.

The joy of sharing a dessert with my daughter, letting myself sleep in, or spending an afternoon helping a family member can be a very healthy move—even if it means missing time at the gym, for example. 

Until we’re referring to a more holistic meaning of the word, I’m not raising my girls to be “healthy”; I’m aiming for a state of eating well-being instead.

Want to help your own daughter have a broader sense of “health” and start feeling good about all kinds of self-care—even when it doesn’t involve kale smoothies and flat tummy? Me, too! Join myself + the NourishHer Community by signing up for One Nourishing Idea!

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