Kids get lifelong benefits with healthy attitudes about food

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at

It may start with the time-honored parental plea to “eat your vegetables,” but constantly pressuring kids to eat this and avoid that can backfire, creating a negative view of healthy eating habits. It may even trigger the development of an eating disorder. “This models a moralistic good versus bad unbalanced approach to food to our children,” said Atlanta psychologist Dina Zeckhausen. “Taken to the extreme, this is the mindset that sets folks up for weight swings, mood swings, and potentially serious eating disorders.”

Zeckhausen, founder of EDIN (Eating Disorders Information Network), is the author of a children's eating disorder prevention book called "Full Mouse, Empty Mouse: A Tale of Food and Feelings." In the book, which is used as part of the Georgia Eat Smart obesity prevention campaign, mouse Billy overeats for comfort and mouse Sally under eats for control. Aunt Louise teaches them to listen to their emotional feelings and their body's physical hunger and fullness cues. "We encourage children and adults to find healthy ways to take care of emotions," said Zeckhausen. "We shouldn't use dieting to feel in control of our life or use binge eating to numb sadness, loneliness, stress or boredom."

EDIN is presenting a number of free workshops and activities for the organization’s Love Your Body Month throughout February. You can find more information on

Restrictive diets not for kids

Eating plans that ban food groups are not recommended for children. Case in point is the currently popular meat-centric Paleolithic Diet. "I have seen entire families go on Paleo," said registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of "Plant Powered for Life." "It concerns me, because of the lack of entire food groups on the Paleo diet which excludes grains, dairy and legumes." Palmer worries that such restrictive diets may be deficient in key nutrients needed by children such as calcium and fiber. "Not to mention the psychological issues for kids related to instilling the idea that eating grains, potatoes and legumes is 'bad,'" she said.

No need to cheat

Nurturing a healthy attitude about eating includes the acceptance of enjoying splurge foods in moderation. “Paleo dieters like to call the days they go completely off Paleo as ‘cheat’ days, which really bothers me,” said Palmer. Zeckhausen encourages a positive approach to eating. “It’s the 80-20 rule with mostly healthy foods and fun indulgences sprinkled in,” she said.