Food is Love … or is it?

lovefoodWhen we take a hard look at the epidemic of childhood obesity, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Fast food, sugary drinks, advertising campaigns aimed squarely at our youngest consumers, candy displays placed at kids’ eye level in the supermarket check-out aisle … the list goes on and on.

What we DON’T talk much about is the way our children establish their relationship with food. How, from the earliest age, what and how much we eat carries emotion and meaning far more powerful than the fuel for the physical machine.

Many of us came from families where forced feeding was considered an act of love. Chubby babies were admired in direct proportion to how many fleshy rolls (called pulkes in my family) adorned those delicious thighs. Any emotional event — happy, sad, or downright traumatic — demanded food, and lots of it. Arguments and hurt feelings were assuaged with platters of high calorie offerings.

To be honest, my own mother was an awful cook. She was a woman of many talents, but food preparation was not one of them. More often than not there was way too much pepper in the spaghetti sauce or a tell-tale pink tint to the undercooked chicken. And yet food was still a big part of her currency. Huge pots of greasy chili simmered on the stove on weekends when friends or family were expected to drop by, even though we all knew it would be almost impossible to choke down without loaves of bread, butter and milk. She couldn’t help herself.

My generation of mothers wised up a bit in the food department — or so we thought. Beginning with breastfeeding, we tuned into nutrition as an important parenting value. We pureed our own vegetables, avoided added sugar, and worried about pesticides contaminating fruits and juices. If you are what you eat , we made sure our kids had the right stuff.

But we were often still stuck in the emotional part. Maybe even more than our mothers, because we invested so much time and energy into it. If our kids were healthy and strong it was because we fed them right, and if they weren’t … well, we must have screwed up somewhere. Food was still love, just with a slightly different twist. GOOD food (fresh, green, homemade, with proper representation of all the groups) was love. Anything else was all wrong.

In the process we sometimes sent our kids the clear message that what you eat and when you eat it is very important. In fact, it may define who you are. I have a friend who’s feeding style tells the story.

From the time we met when her kids were tiny, it was clear that Jane put her heart and soul into planning, organizing and preparing the family meals. There was always a healthy, multi-course breakfast with all the food groups represented. Lunch included a starter, maybe homemade soup, followed by a protein-rich entree, whole grain side, and a light, tasty dessert. Dinner might be a bit more elaborate, with a creative pairing of dishes that were nutrition-rich and always delicious.

Jane’s son and daughter ate well and heartily. They loved Jane’s cooking and as a result they loved food. Too much. Jane sent lunches to school that were packed with care and lots of healthy options. Her kids ate it up, and then accepted offerings from their friends of the ‘forbidden fruit’ they didn’t get at home, like the prepackaged convenience stuff that the rest of us resorted to every once in awhile, but Jane never did.

They devoured everything and started to pile on the pounds. Rather than scale back the laser-like focus on eating, Jane set about increasing their activity level. Family bike rides, hikes, and swim lessons were added. It was easy to see the struggle taking hold. Food may be love, but too much food isn’t so lovely.

Over the years the problem – and the kids – grew. Jane tried everything she could think of to get the food thing under control, but by then the kids had absorbed the emotional charge. As they entered those important ‘push mom away a bit’ years, food became an even more powerful tool. The days when Jane came home to a raided pantry spoke volumes about who was really the boss in the eating department.

The teen years were rough, and both kids took their share of teasing from peers. Towards the end of high school, Jane’s son took control and started a healthy diet plan, losing much of the excess weight. Today he looks and feels great, but it’s not always easy to avoid old habits. Her daughter still struggles with those pounds of love. She takes them off over and over, but gradually they come back as food fills those empty places and provides such loving comfort.

So what’s the take home message here? How do we learn — and teach — that food is food? That it’s fuel for the machine, not comfort for the soul. Is it possible to create and eat delicious food without giving it too much power in our lives? Will some of us, for biological or genetic reasons, always be more vulnerable to food as love?

Are you a ‘Jane’?

I sure don’t have all the answers, but I’m asking the questions. Because when the most recent numbers estimate that 1 in 3 of our children will be overweight or obese, it’s time to stop pointing fingers and figure out what each of us can do about it.

As moms, we do stock the fridge and set the tone. The background music is largely ours. Is it food as love or food as fuel?

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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2 responses to “Food is Love … or is it?”

  1. Bust That BMI

    [...] Food is Love … Or is It? [...]

  2. honing in on a research topic: part one « KelJolie's Blog

    [...] On food and parenting: “Food is love…or is it?” [...]

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