By Megrette Fletcher M.Ed, RD, CDE
Have you ever wondered what a calorie is? Many parents might remember back to high school science class when they discovered that it was a unit of measure. Most people think of calories as something far more sinister. It is this discrepancy between what calories are, a measure of energy, and what calories have come to mean, “something bad,” that makes explaining this calorie concept to children challenging.
In the previous post, I described calories as like money. Money can be a common unit measure that can help your child understand the “cost” of food. When working with kids, simple concepts are the way to go. There are some advantages to seeing calories this way, First, most children are familiar with the idea that to buy something, you must pay for it. When I teach children, they tell me that money is more relatable and easier to understand than thinking of calories as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1°C. Second, I have found that money is more interesting and less emotional than what society projects onto calories. Third, thinking of calories as money reinforces the concept of CHOICE, which is near and dear to my heart. Equating calories to money can teach other skills, like money management. Finally, relating calories to money can help both adult and child explore the larger concept of what each person values. The disadvantage is that many professionals question whether children need to understand calories at all and, a bigger concern, whether equating food and money could promote disordered eating because, unlike money, you don’t “earn” food or eating.
These concerns are valid. Therefore, my recommendation is to open up the calorie conversation with your kid. You will get a sense, based on his response, if the concept is helpful. If you child expresses fear or discomfort about “spending his calories” by eating higher-calorie food, this is a red flag. Don’t ignore this response. In our appearance-obsessed world, body discomfort begins as young as age 3. Eating disorders do not “appear,” they are taught by a thousand teachers, slowly over time, and present as fears and concerns with how the body looks, instead of how the body functions. These disordered thoughts prey on the child’s mind and emerge when he is afraid or feels unworthy or not valued. [Signs of an eating disorder]
No parent wants to foster these fears in a child, but many parents unintentionally share their own insecurity about their body image or food choices. A child learns a lot about disordered eating when he repeatedly sees a parent or family member overly concerned about how the body looks instead of how it functions. This learning is accelerated when someone expresses fear of eating meals or of higher-calorie items.
So what can you do? Create opportunities to have conversations about what you value — instead of how a person looks. For example, “I value that you care for yourself” vs. “I value you being thin.” Or “I value you eating a balanced diet” vs “I value you eating low-calorie foods.” I believe such conversations are a necessary step to preventing disordered thinking and eating habits. Talking about the value of calories with children when they are young can be a helpful way to have these conversations. In the following series, called The Value of Calories, Mindful Eating for Kids will explore how and when to talk about calories to your children. Join me as we explore fun ideas, interesting concepts, and engaging ways to talk with your kids about what matters most about nutrition — your family values!
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[Smolak, Linda, Michael Levine P., and Florence Schermer. “Parental Input and Weight Concerns among Elementary School Children.” Int. J. Eat. Disord. International Journal of Eating Disorders 25.3 (1999): 263-71. Web.]