This article is cross posted on Intuitive Psychotherapy NYC.
New Year’s resolutions often revolve around diet, body image, losing weight, exercising, and eating. Wanting to be healthy is important: making sure one attends a yearly physical or well-visit, eating fruits and veggies, drinking plenty of water and moving our bodies. Intuitive eating is based on physical and emotional health and I urge you to consider making it this year’s New Year’s Resolution. Intuitive eating is about having a healthy outlook towards food and body image, satisfying hunger, and making peace with food. At the end of this article are the 10 guiding principles of Intuitive Eating.
Obsessively worrying about counting calories, what someone eats and looks like is not healthy and can cross the line between being healthy and having an eating disorder. The concept of dieting is not new, some would argue it’s been around for centuries, but the phenomenon of the impact on tweens and teens has escalated significantly in recent years. Per the National Eating Disorder Association, almost 30 million individuals in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime. Eating disorders are serious, but oftentimes overlooked when children are in Division of Child Protection and Permanency (“DCPP” formerly, DYFS) care and custody. After all, it is impossible to tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. Eating disorders among children in the child welfare system are often overlooked because other alleged abuse and neglect issues are at the forefront of everyone’s minds when speaking with foster children. Yet, eating disorders manifest in different ways depending on an individual, and should not be disregarded in foster children. It is also important to point out that eating disorders affect all genders, not only girls. Please seek out an eating disorder specialist who is a licensed social worker or psychologist if necessary.
What I learned working as a child welfare lawyer is that there are three recurring themes. The first is children who hoard food. They bring home a backpack of extra food from school lunch, then hide the food in their rooms or they go to a friend’s home and bring home food. Food might be found in drawers, closets or under the bed. Empty wrappers or spoiling food may also be found. Children who fit into this category might have experienced food insecurity, meaning a lack of food in their home. According to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, 175, 000 children face hunger. There are a myriad of reasons consisting of lack of transportation, lack of finances, living in an area considered to be a food desert, with no grocery stores nearby, or an adult who has difficulty leaving the home. It is very important not to punish this behavior but rather to be patient and teach the child food is available and should remain in and near the kitchen.
Also concerning is binging and/or starving oneself. Eating disorders occur in all sized bodies. Though these appear to be opposite in nature, they are both about control and feeling vulnerable about a lack of power over one’s life. Foster children or children who have open DCPP cases often voice wanting more of a say and control over their lives, regarding living circumstances, placement, visitation and school. They are unable to control the actions of their biological parent or guardian, unable to control where DCPP is placing them and unable to control a judge’s ruling. I urge caseworkers, resource parents, grandparents and other family members to emphasize things children can control. Children can speak to their Law Guardian, attend a court hearing and speak directly to a judge, they can make recommendations as to where they wish to live, they can request and recommend services and activities such as family therapy, individual therapy, anger management, or an extracurricular activity to participate in. Caregivers can place emphasis on children’s ability to control who they are friends with, the order to complete their homework assignments in, chores for the week, haircuts or styles, clothes and decorating their room.
A child might not be ready to speak about the reason why they feel a lack of control in their lives, therefore their eating habits might paint a picture of their trauma. Children physically or sexually abused might be triggered by certain foods if those foods remind them of the abuse endured. Food may also be a conscious or subconscious way to reduce unwanted attention.
Remember that commenting on weight is not just about weight. Without additional information, eating, weight, perfectionist tendencies, and body image, might also encompass trauma, medical conditions, grief and loss, or mental health. If a child is telling an adult they are hungry, per Intuitive Eating guidelines, they should eat. Having them go to bed hungry could impact their growth and development as well as cause unhealthy eating habits.
Emotional eating can be healthy but caregivers should notice if there are clues as to whether a check-in conversation needs to happen. For instance, if a child is coming home every Tuesday and Thursday after their biological parent visits and is emotional eating, that child is using food to cope with feelings surrounding their visit. And, that’s ok! It is normal to be emotional around a visit day. In fact, it may be of concern if there are no emotions going on surrounding a visits ever. Certainly, I am not proposing to grill a child about their visit as this would be highly inappropriate but you can casually ask about the visits. Visits are personal. If you notice a trend, it would be best for a therapist or the Law Guardian to speak with the child about how they feel about visits.
- Rejecting a diet mentality (avoiding trends and fad)
- Honoring hungry cues (by eating)
- Making peace with food (stop labeling. For example: too many calories, junk food, etc)
- Challenge food rules (food is not good or bad)
- Find satisfaction (eat satisfying foods)
- Listen to your body to determine if it’s full
- Be kind to your emotions (with and without the use of food)
- Respect your body
- Movement and exercise
- Health and nutrition (science exists and it’s okay to consider it as fuel for your body)
Showing consistent support and creating a non-judgmental household as a caregiver are the most beneficial actions you can take to show compassion.