On Nutrition

For many adults who have struggled with disordered eating — whether chronic dieting or an actual eating disorder — and an unhappy relationship with their bodies, becoming a parent can be a catalyst for change. They might do their own work to heal so they can be a good role model for their children. They might simply try to figure out what to do or say to avoid “damaging” their child.

Other parents follow familiar patterns that may have started with their own parents or grandparents and are supported today by diet culture. They push the vegetables and restrict desserts. They keep certain “forbidden” foods out of the house. They may even put their child on a diet if their percentile on the growth charts is “too high.” While this often comes from the best of intentions — such as wanting to keep their kids safe from future health problems or from being bullied because of their weight — it can backfire.

In their deeply detailed, richly nuanced new book, “How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence,” registered dietitians Sumner Brooks and Amee Severson offer parents an alternative framework for approaching child feeding that focuses on well-being, not weight.

“It’s for parents who want to know about the harms of diet culture and dieting and want to set their kids on a different path to avoid those harms,” said Brooks, a Portland-based eating disorder specialist. She said countless parents have told her that they wish they had known this information sooner so they might have been able to avert their child’s eating disorder. “It’s a huge loss for a parent to realize later on down the line that they could have supported their child with food and body in different ways,” she said. “Parents are mostly getting this status quo flow of information, which is really only aligned with diet culture and healthism. There’s a whole [other] set of information that they’re missing.” The book fills that knowledge gap, so parents can see the full picture and make a more informed decision about how they want to approach food and talk about bodies at home.

“This was the book that I wish my parents had read — and my clients wish their parents had read,” said Severson, who helps clients of all ages recover from eating disorders in her Bellingham private practice.

Severson said she and Brooks wrote the book to be a resource for as many people as possible. “We wanted it to be for people who had never heard of Intuitive Eating and also for people who know a lot about it. We wanted it to be accessible enough for parents to read and have enough research and support and heft behind it that [health care] providers could read.”

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The book is divided into five parts. Part 1 addresses the harms of diet culture, which include a focus on weight and pressure on parents to feed their kids “perfectly,” and can have the unintended effect of moving kids away from well-being and toward disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. Part 2 aims to free parents from the pressure to be perfect, guiding them through their own experiences with food and body, and how those experiences influenced their beliefs. It offers a road map for modeling a positive relationship with food, movement and body image, including an approach to eating that is structured without being controlling or restrictive and a home environment that’s free of negative weight and body talk.

Brooks said even though weight stigma and fear-based beliefs about food and eating are systemic problems, positive change can start in the home. “Parents are so influential. They have such a big role,” she said. “I think as more kids are being brought up in a way that has less anti-fatness and less weight stigma, we’re going to have more acceptance of diversity, we’re going to have less bullying, we’re going to have safer places for kids in all bodies.”

Part 3 introduces the 3 Keys: provide unconditional love and support for your child’s body, implement a flexible and reliable feeding routine, and develop and use your Intuitive Eating voice. Part 4 discusses gentle nutrition, how to approach physical activity in a way that focuses on body appreciation, and common medical and health concerns. Part 5 starts with a comprehensive look at the developmental stages of childhood from birth through adolescence — with detailed suggestions for how to approach food and bodies at each stage and why it matters — then finishes with compassionate advice for handling various bumps in the road.

Brooks said they’ve been asked how their book fits with the concept of division of responsibility, an approach to child feeding developed by Ellyn Satter and used by many parents. “The book is complementary to division of responsibility. It goes way more into systemic issues, weight stigma and embodiment and the parental experience of how difficult it can be to not align with diet culture.”

It’s important to note that this book is not written for parents of kids who already have eating disorders, or who have avoidant restrictive food intake disorder or extreme picky eating. “There is information about picky eating in the toddler developmental phase — which is a super common kind of speed bump — but it’s not the focus of the book,” Brooks said.

And if you think that this book is trying to like fix kids, or that Intuitive Eating is a diet with a different label, think again. “This isn’t about putting another like set of restrictions on a kid,” Severson said. “It’s just continuing to foster what they already have and bringing it back out if it’s been suppressed.” In other words, help them remain or return to being an Intuitive Eater, which we were all born to be.