By Beth Tyrrell

WE live in a world where seemingly no-one is happy with how they look. A muffin top to detest, or tree-trunk legs, or arms and shoulders entirely devoid of manly muscle. We all need to tone up, slim down, eat fewer donuts. And at the bottom of it all is the ever burning question: Does my bum look big in this?

Enough is enough, says Food Coach Alison Kingston. Especially if you have children; even more especially if you have teenage daughters. Because if we feel fat and ugly and ashamed of the way we eat, then of course our poor teenage daughters do too, and they are a whole lot more vulnerable than we are.

“I had a client once whose anorexia started when she was a young teenager and someone complemented her that she had lost weight,” says Alison. “Her self-esteem and self-image were vulnerable and it felt so good to be complimented that she tried to lose more weight and fell into the trap of anorexia.”

Alison’s online course ‘Embodied Weight Loss’ helps clients to explore and overcome the hidden issues they have with food; be they yo-yo dieters, fans of the latest health food fad, or stuck in a rut of quick fix processed foods. But it is particularly useful for worried parents of teenage girls because it is packed with practical advice on how to tackle the slippery issue of how we feel about food and our bodies.

LANGUAGE OF SHAME

The way we talk about food and body weight is loaded with shame, says Alison. “I see young women all the time who feel such guilt and shame about what they are eating. They are perfectionists, striving for good results at school, for acceptance and at the bottom of it all, for love. What and how much they eat becomes a huge issue for them.”

We can’t change the way women are constantly body shamed in the media, but we can refuse to do it ourselves. “Never compliment or comment on a person’s weight,” says Alison. “For a teenage girl there are so many kind and positive compliments you can give. Instead of mentioning weight, say – You have a lovely smile. It’s great to see you look so healthy.” If you can manage it, compliment her qualities rather than her looks. Is she funny? Is she kind? Confident? Hard working?

When you see articles comparing celebrity bikini bodies, put it in context for your daughter. Tell her – That woman is a famous soap actress or TV presenter or singer, she makes her living in an exciting way, she is good at what she does. That’s why we know who she is. Isn’t it just rude and silly to mock her for having tummy fat? Or praise her for having none?

But more important than celebrity bodies is your own body. Do you run yourself down? Do you fret and worry about how many calories you have consumed, or if your clothes are sufficiently flattering?

And it’s not just bodies that are good or bad. The way we talk about food is just as damning. While it is obvious that we should choose nutritious foods over processed sugary ones, the list of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ foods is exhaustingly long and tangled. Once you enter the realm of obsessing over chlorella versus spirulina, you know you have gone too far. Keep it simple – balance is everything.

LISTEN

Alison says: “If your daughter starts to restrict the kinds of things she’ll eat, maybe she becomes a vegetarian or she decides she wants a gluten-free diet, you need to take notice.” But you do not need to panic and condemn her. Wanting a healthier diet or one that reflects her ethical choices is not a bad thing and does not mean she is in free fall to an eating disorder. But, says Alison, it is time to make a safe space around food and diet.

Have a look at family meals. Perhaps your daughter is right – the diet of the family is maybe dependant on a lot of processed foods and lacking in vegetables and whole grains. In this case, suggests Alison, your daughter’s concerns can be the catalyst the whole family needs to improve health and well-being. “Take a close look at your diet from a place of health and feeling well,” suggests Alison. “How do you feel after each meal? Energised or sleepy? Do you have a sore tummy? Do you feel bloated? There are changes you can make so that when you eat you enjoy your food and feel well afterwards. Choose to change from this place, rather than counting calories and looking at fat content.”

One way to keep food talk open and friendly is to include your daughter in family meal preparation. “Get a new cookbook,” says Alison, “But not a diet or healthy eating cookbook. Choose one that is fun and inspiring and let your daughter choose what she wants to try. Include her in writing the shopping list and doing the shopping and cooking. This is a great time to explore the cuisine of other countries. Choose recipes that are exciting, use all fresh ingredients and nothing processed.” In this way you can redirect your daughter’s heightened interest in food towards enjoyment and health.

This is also respectful of your daughter’s wishes to eat in a healthier way. If all your meals are prepared at home with fresh, unprocessed ingredients then there is a good chance that you will all lose some weight. But don’t focus on this.

THE PLEASURE BLOCK

Eating should make us feel good. When we eat in a relaxed setting, our gut works busily to release the full nutritional benefit of the food, and the pleasure centres of the brain are stimulated too. But, explains Alison, “when you eat in a stress state your brain can’t receive the pleasure.” Stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline cause blood flow to be directed to your limbs and away from the digestive system. This not only blocks your brain from feeling pleasure, but causes inefficient and sluggish digestion, leading to discomfort and bloating.

Alison says: “What happens if you don’t get enough pleasure from your food is that you go looking for something else later. Your brain is designed to feel a certain amount of pleasure daily and we often look to food to supply it.”

Have a look at the atmosphere of family meals and try to cut out stresses and distractions. Help your children organise a homework and screen time routine that allows them to come to the table feeling calm, and try to change your own daily routine to include stress-reducing activities such as getting outside for a daily walk. Turn off the tv and radio and be present at the meal, aware of the food you eat and the people you are with.

Ultimately, having a balanced attitude to food requires balance in the rest of our lives too. A holistic approach is needed, says Alison. We need to examine all the emotional triggers that cause us to over or under eat, in a safe and supported way, and find the many paths forward to health.  And that is what a food coach does.