Encouraging Healthy Food Habits for Children: The Importance of Using Positive Language

When used effectively, words can be a powerful tool in communicating with your children. They can effectively convey important messages that help shape a healthy life and mindset. However, using words that hinder, particularly when it comes to food, can present a problem.

As a society, we are bombarded with diet-focused vocabulary that can influence the way we perceive food. Although we may think that we are using harmless ways to describe nutrition and body image, we may actually be setting the stage for disordered eating patterns in the future. Establishing a healthy relationship with food at a young age is crucial in preventing the use of food to control or cope with feelings and circumstances.

Jenna Lenhart, registered dietician nutritionist, at The Youth Clinic, has some tips for using helpful language when discussing food with children:

  • Avoid using descriptors that make food seem morally superior or inferior. Instead of using terms like “clean”, “bad”, or “junk”, consider food as neutral and acceptable when consumed in a healthy and balanced manner.
  • Be cautious of your own negative body talk. Children absorb what we say and can internalize those messages, leading to harmful beliefs about their own bodies.
  • Keep diet-specific words out of your vocabulary. Children do not need to worry about or be exposed to terms like “keto” or “intermittent fasting” which can lead to restrictive and disordered eating behavior.
  • Utilize “Intuitive Eating” language (Intuitive eating 4th Ed: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet approach, Resch and Tribole 1995). Promote a positive mindset about food. This includes phrases like “honor your hunger”, “respect and value your body”, and “discover satisfaction”.
  • Avoid being the “food police”. Instead of “you can’t have carbs” or “you eat too many sweets” encourage children to listen to their bodies and choose what sounds satisfying in the moment. The body typically seeks a healthy balance of macronutrients throughout the day.

By using positive language and avoiding harmful words, we can establish healthy relationships with food at a young age and prevent disordered eating patterns in the future.

Jenna Lenhart, RDN, IBCLC
Fort Collins Youth Clinic