The impact parents can have on your relationship with food and your body

by Eat, Health

So many of us get down on ourselves for having a poor relationship with food or our bodies… But the truth is, your relationship with food and your body begins the moment you enter this world. There are so many elements which contribute to how you feel about yourself and the space you take up in the world – marketing, celebrity culture, social media, media articles, friends… and parents. Your parents play such a foundational role in establishing how you relate to food and your body. 

First things first, how do you know if you need to work on your relationship with food and your body? Well, if you identify with the following experiences, it might be time to reflect and reconsider your attitudes towards these key areas of your life:

  • Experiencing guilt after eating
  • Avoiding or restricting certain foods you believe to be “bad” or “unhealthy”
  • Feeling like you need to “earn” or “burn off” foods with exercise
  • A need to compensate by limiting food intake after eating or drinking more than normal
  • Extensive lists of rules around foods, food timings etc
  • Relying on calorie trackers to determine whether you can or can’t eat something
  • Ignoring your hunger cues consistently
  • Feeling severe stress or anxiety around social settings involving food
  • Believing everyone around you is judging your food choices and portions
  • A history of dieting, and trying various fad diets
  • Bingeing and/or restricting food intake
  • Feeling like your worth is derived from your diet patterns and the size of your body.

These are just some of the signs you need to work on your relationship with food and your body. Don’t beat yourself up if you have some work to do – you’re not alone!

Now let’s dive into some of the many ways your parents’ actions can influence your relationship with food and your body for years and years to come.

1. Comments on your weight and appearance.

Did your parents ever comment on your weight or body as you were growing up? Did they make remarks around weight gain as you started to hit puberty, or even praise you for losing weight at some stage in your earlier years?

Did your parents ever voice concern if you gained weight, or encourage you to diet to shed a few “extra kilos”? Did they ever try to restrict or change your eating habits when you were younger?

If so, this may have had a profound impact on how you feel about yourself, your body, and your eating behaviours, and potentially have contributed to a strained relationship with food and your body for years to come. While parents rarely have any ill intentions, even “positive” compliments they made reinforcing the importance of body weight and size, or praising you for losing weight can have a significant impact, particularly in your vulnerable early years.

Comments like these from parents reinforce the idea that to be accepted or worthy, you should aim to look a certain way, whatever that requires. These comments can send a clear message that you’re only good enough if you look a certain way, leading to a complex intertwining relationship between your self-worth and your body image.

The more this occurs during childhood, the more difficult it can be to untangle. Separating your identity, sense of self, and self-worth from the way your body looks is critical to fostering a positive relationship with your body.

2. Role modelling

As children, our parents are often our greatest role models. We strive to emulate and copy them and their behaviours as closely as possible… And their own relationships with their bodies is a common trait we tend to observe and replicate in some way.

How did your parents talk about food and their own eating habits throughout your childhood? Were certain foods “good” and “bad”? Did they constantly talk about their own need to try every fad diet under the sun, or obsess over tracking their daily calories? 

If this was the case in your household, it’s no surprise that this likely contributed to a problematic relationship with food and your own body. By emotionally charging certain foods, this sets you up to fixate on certain “bad” foods, feel guilty whenever you consume them, and even to judge yourself in accordance with the “healthfulness” of the foods you’ve been eating. It sends the message that your inherent worth is based on the health or “goodness” of the foods you eat, meaning you’re much more likely to ignore your body’s cravings and needs in order to focus on these so-called “healthier” foods.

3. Food as reward or punishment

Was food used as punishment and reward as you grew up? Were there rules around having to finish your entire main meal in order to “earn” dessert? Using food as either a reward or a form of punishment can be extremely problematic, as this further enforces the idea of foods being inherently good or bad. 

It elevates “treat” foods as being almost exclusive and restricted. In turn, this makes your childhood self want and crave these “forbidden” foods even more, creating an early version of the binge-restrict cycle we see so often today. By emotionally charging certain foods, you may have established a complex and problematic relationship with food, dieting and your body.

Even seemingly innocent actions by your parents, such as encouraging you to eat “two more mouthfuls of your greens” in order to get dessert, or asking you to “finish your meal before you leave the table” encourage you to reject your body’s own hunger and fullness cues, and instead rely on the opinions of others in order to determine what you and your body need. These messages, beginning at such an early age, tell you that your own intuition is not to be trusted, further complicating your relationship with our body and with food.

4. Food’s place in your family life

Food plays a significant role in different family and cultural dynamics, and this can hugely influence your relationship with eating and with your body. 

Food can be a really powerful way to communicate and connect with loved ones, as well as your culture and heritage. Meals eaten together as a family have been shown to improve your relationship with food and your body, by allowing connection, interaction and sharing of these sacred times. Even better, making the effort to prepare meals as a family, or trying new foods together can create positive associations and experiences around food, making you more willing and able to try new foods and include a variety of food groups in your diet later in life.

However on the flip side, if you didn’t experience these communal, connecting moments, and meal times were more of a stressful, frantic, emotionally-charged experience in your family, this can again contribute to a problematic relationship with food and your body.

5. Your parents’ responses to your relationship with your body

At some stage, if you opened up to your parents about your strained relationship with your body or with food, how did they respond? Even if you did so at a later stage in your life, the reaction and support (or lack thereof) from your parents can play a pivotal role in how you heal or improve this relationship moving forward.

If your parents invalidated your experiences or struggles, or suggested constant yo-yo dieting, encouraged you to try a new fad diet as the solution to all your problems, or simply didn’t want to know about your difficulties in feeling confident, secure and safe in your body, this may have caused some serious damage to your relationship with your body.

However, if they encouraged you to get support, validated your concerns, and expressed their commitment in helping you however they could, this may have been a really healing experience.

While our parents very rarely mean any harm in their words and actions, sometimes as children (or even as adults), we can interpret small comments in ways they weren’t intended, or mimic damaging and negative behaviours we see modelled by our parents. We know some people have a predisposition towards some eating disorders – and this can be influenced by seeing a negative relationship with food played out in front of you by your own parents.

In order to heal your own relationship with food and your body, it’s important to understand all the elements which contributed to where you are today – so you can start to unpack the false idea that your worth and your identity is determined by the size of your body, and the healthfulness of the foods you eat. Because you are SO much more than these things, and you’re worthy of feeling loved for being exactly as you are, regardless of how you look!

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Sarah King

Sarah King

Hi future friends, I’m Sarah King, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and health coach.

Science, not trends is the foundation of my approach. By nourishing the body and mind with scientific facts we can build foundations for a life of realness, not just wellness.