I was a picky eater when I was a kid. A very very very picky eater. Being an only child, my parents spoiled me with the food that I got to put on my plate: I could eat whatever I wanted and have as much or as little as I wanted. (Soft drinks, however, are a different matter, which I’ll dive into later.) As a kid, that meant no veggies but a lot of junk/fast fast food and an unlimited access to spam, hot dogs, and bacon—pretty much anything processed, canned, and highly advertised on TV. Of course, I had my Filipino faves like adobo, tapa, tinola, and nilaga but if they “looked” weird to me (e.g. kare-kare, laing, pinakbet) or had liver as an ingredient then no thanks; I’m all set with my pan/deep-fried meat!
In fairness, I did try some dishes first before I “eliminated” them from my food list and that was probably the only time my parents would ever force me into eating something. I had to have a taste and if I didn’t like it then that’s too bad. My loss, right? My parents and our helpers would simply refer back to what I already liked and made sure to always prepare something from that “yes-she-eats-this” group.
I don’t think my parents ever forced me to finish my food either. They never really gave me the whole “don’t-waste-your-food-other-people-are-starving-in-the-world” speech. I mean, there wasn’t really anything left for me to waste since I got to control the food on my plate. I knew exactly what I wanted and how much of it I would eat.
So I was a happy and spoiled little girl growing up with no scary force-feeding episodes of “Eat Your Veggies!”. Instead, I had my never ending meals of spam, hot dogs, and bacon—these staples (with a lot of rice and ketchup!), among others, were all that I needed back then. My parents probably didn’t see that as a problem since they were cheap, fast, and convenient options, and more importantly, they greatly satisfied me. One less tantrum for them to worry about!
Despite my over consumption of these highly processed and fried foods, I hardly had any fat in my body. I was so skinny and frail that my friends, my relatives and even my teachers would tease me that a strong gust of wind could probably sweep me off my feet and take me far, far away.
I was never blown away literally but I was swept off my feet by a serious case of fevers. At least once a month, I would get sick and be bed-ridden from 3 to 4 days. I remember how my eyes would burn as my body temperature began to rise up. I was weak and helpless; all I could do was take my meds religiously and waited for my illness to die down— a good illustration of what T. Colin Campbell was trying to point out in his book Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. My doctors sought to fight the particular disease and not the root of it. They would diagnose me and usually it’d be the same problem as the month before. That’s because no matter how varied the external factors were, the food I was taking in internally were always the same: they were empty-caloric and nutrient-lacking hence my body became like them as well. The dependency on modern medicine caused my doctors and my parents to miss out on the bigger problem: my poor nutrition.
Logically, the “wholistic” solution would have been for me to eat my veggies regularly cause then I probably wouldn’t have had such a weak immune system. If only my parents didn’t spoil me as much, right? Not exactly. I actually think my parents did pretty well by letting me control my plate and I am grateful that they never forced veggies down my throat. I may have eaten all the poor stuff which got me sick all the time but I did learn to listen to my body. I simply ate according to my needs, giving my body what, when and how much it wanted—I think that is the first thing about food and nutrition that parents should teach their children. They shouldn’t be forced to eat something they don’t want because it actually has the opposite effect: it causes children to eat less and dislike certain foods.
On the other hand, restricting children makes them want to eat more and some end up binging. For example, the only thing that my parents were strict about was coke (as in the coca-cola drink, not cocaine). My dad banned me from having any until I was 10 years old because it had caffeine in it. Luckily, he was always out of the country so I would just binge on coke then. However, when I turned 10 and my “coke ban” was officially lifted, my addiction started to die down. I guess it was just a case of you-want-what-you-can’t-have.
A healthy lifestyle is so much more than just eating what’s “good” and avoiding what’s “bad”. It is also about understanding your body, its wants and needs, and creating a mutual relationship with food. Forced or restricted food consumption does not encourage that kind of relationship therefore it is not a basis of healthy lifestyle. The best thing parents can do is to provide children with better and healthier food choices to cater to their needs and as they arise. It’s not about forcing or tricking children to eat what’s in front of them, but creating a positive relationship with food first.
These practices apply to anyone really, not just kids. If you’re looking to adapt a “healthy” lifestyle, don’t jump into some strict diet plan. Start by implementing small changes like eliminating junk food/fast food but don’t restrict yourself from them forever. You can base most of your diet on a healthy one but don’t be scared to have something “bad” once in awhile. You have to listen to your body—what, when, and how much it wants—and work with it. If you’ve been eating healthy 6 days in a row but suddenly your body starts craving for chocolate, then go for it and don’t punish yourself for having it. You have to eat to live AND live to eat. Once you have established a better relationship with food, you’ll see that making healthier food choices becomes easy and it’ll be a more natural habit.
(P.S. I am still a picky eater but with preference to raw, whole and unprocessed foods. Take note that these are simply preferences and not self-restrictions. I enjoy ice cream and cookies every now and then—all in moderation, of course!)