Navigating Restrictive Diets as a Family

Navigating Restrictive Diets as a Family

Published on Tuesday, May 02, 2023 by Brooke Orr

Restrictive diets can be anxiety provoking and difficult to follow.

Your healthcare team may decide the possible benefits outweigh the cons in certain situations.  

The person following the diet should have support from their medical team, but what about their family? Studies have shown that parents' relationship with food impacts their children’s relationship with food and body image. Research indicates that children whose parents follow restrictive diets are more likely to be disconnected from their body’s hunger and fullness cues, restrict or binge, and have low self-esteem.  

Knowing that medically prescribed diets can be necessary and may have negative effects on the family unit makes it imperative for families to receive support in communicating dietary changes and managing mealtime. 

Enter Oona Hanson, a parent educator who supports families in raising kids to have a healthy relationship with food and their body. She was kind enough to sit down with me and provide tips on navigating medically prescribed diets and mealtime for families: 

Communication is key. 

Oona states that the unsaid things speak volumes and that kids learn as much from what we do as from what we say. She suggests being open and honest about your dietary changes in a developmentally appropriate way. Before talking to your kids, evaluate your own bias towards foods. She cautions parents not to create food rules or a hierarchy of healthy vs. unhealthy foods, stating that outside of an allergy, there is nothing in a food that can hurt a child more than the fear and anxiety of that food. 

Oona stresses that kids are “black and white thinkers” and will draw conclusions and causations and apply it to themselves. She refers to this as the “nocebo effect”- the accidental planting of fear in kids. For example- mommy says she can’t eat cheese because it hurts her tummy and makes her sick. A child may take this information to mean cheese is bad and will hurt their own tummy. This assumption by the child can create anxiety for the child, which may result in a tummy ache, therefore making their fear seem true even though the cheese did not cause the outcome. This situation can be dangerous for kids because their food fears can continue to grow- their diets becoming increasingly restrictive, leading to disordered eating and nutrient deficiencies. 

Instead of detailing what a certain food specifically does to your body try shifting the focus to body respect. For example, start with open-ended questions like: 

  1. What do you think it means to respect your body- or for younger kids to take care of your body?
  2. Have you noticed any changes in what I eat or at family meals?

Then based on their answers simply let them know that you haven’t been feeling your very best so you and your medical team have decided to try changing what you eat to see if it helps. Let them know that this is an example of you practicing body respect.

Emphasize that everyone's body is different and constantly changing, and what is nourishing or not nourishing to mom or dad will likely be different than what is nourishing to them. Make sure they understand the changes you are making to your diet are like a short-term experiment, and that the rest of the family will have continued access to all foods. 

Oona explains that while we (adults) may know the nutrition science of how our body relates to certain foods, getting into the weeds of nutrition is not developmentally appropriate for most kids and can backfire creating an unhealthy relationship with food (remember how she mentioned that they think in black and white). Kids can draw unhealthy conclusions from what is not on the table so make sure the rest of the family does not feel restricted. 

This may seem overwhelming when you are on a restrictive diet but Oona suggests “build your own” family-style meals, such as a pizza, pasta, potato, or taco bar. This creates an environment where everyone can customize but still feel like they are eating the same meal. 

Dietary changes are hard. Add kids into the mix and mealtime can become daunting. Remember you do not have to navigate this process alone. Get support from a parent coach, intuitive eating coach, or a health at every size (HAES) aligned therapist or dietitian. 

Leave a comment on this article: