• Bari Stricoff, MSc, RDN

My Childhood Experience of Growing Up In A Healthy Home

I had some amazing feedback on a blog post a few months back where I got personal with my weight watchers experience, so I thought I would let my guard down one more time and shed light on my experience growing up in a “healthy house”. Before you read on, please note this is an anecdotal piece whose claims are supported by evidence. However, it does not mean that every child in this environment would have responded similarly (for example, my brother did not), nor is this piece intended to give any parenting advice. This is simply my reflection of the food environment I was brought up in through the lens of a now intuitive eating Registered Dietitian.

Even at a young age I remember my parents always being health conscious individuals. I remember Dad went through a phase that included his supplement packed shakes every morning and, well, Mom was always trying to shed a few pounds. My mother also happens to be an incredible chef, and at the time, owned her own catering company. Thus, food was a very important part of our household. Dinners were always eaten as a family and ALWAYS included a protein, a carbohydrate and a vegetable. More often than none, the main course was preceded by a salad course and dessert always included fruit. As you can imagine, dinner was always a minimum of an hour and a half. Food was always served family style and my brother and I were always encouraged to serve ourselves. However, we were also motivated to eat by the “clean plate club” as Mom’s words were, “You can serve yourself as much or as little as you want, but if you put it on your plate, you have to eat it”.

Looking back, my mom had gotten it so close to perfection. You see, children are born with the innate ability to sense their hunger and fullness cues (think of a baby crying for food, then turn their head away from a bottle when they are full), yet the ability to self-regulate these cues can become corrupted when children are told to disobey them in the name of nutrition, social etiquette and wasting food.

The ability to self-regulate and listen to your hunger cues is a core characteristic of Intuitive Eating. You may have heard of intuitive eating, as it has become a great nutritional buzzword in the recent media. For those that are not familiar with it, intuitive eating is a nutritional attitude that involves listening to your body, honouring your cravings and paying attention to your emotions while you are eating. It encourages you to ditch the diets/diet language and finally allow yourself to eat as you like. While this may scare people, and have some sceptics thinking, “If I ate what I wanted I would weigh 100000 pounds” – what happens is quite the opposite.

When intuitive eating is embraced and all the diet rules go out the window, individuals learn to enjoy the foods that were once forbidden at a smaller and controlled portion, due to no fear of putting the food back on the “NO” list. It not only removes the guilt associated with consuming certain foods, but it also teaches you that food does not equal comfort and emotional eating starts to subside. But most importantly, this approach to eating helps you realize how good your body feels while eating healthy, but does not punish you for eating the less healthy foods you love!

Now that the definition of Intuitive Eating has been established, I will continue to explain how I was NOT an intuitive eater and how my healthy food environment actually fostered unhealthy habits. I swear my friends hated coming over to my house after school because we had very little snacks around. There were grapes, unsalted pretzels and diet ginger ale. The house was PACKED with food at all times – just never any junk food. We had the occasional treats but Mom didn’t like to keep them in the house because she said if they were there, she would eat them. There was the occasional 1 point Weight Watchers chocolates or Girl Scout Cookies, but never boxed/processed snacks like my friends had. There was every ingredient to make any cake or cookie imaginable from scratch – but rarely were they ever made, if not for a holiday or a birthday. And although I was surrounded by healthy options, which, to be fair, I loved and still do – I was never challenged to regulate myself around unhealthy options.

I remember a time in high school when I would get so stressed with AP classes, school sports, college applications and more that I would turn to food. All I wanted was a cookie or a piece of cake, but it wasn’t available. And instead of asking my mom to make me something - which she would have in a second – I would supress that craving. Well, I would suppress that craving until about 10 p.m. and then find myself filling up a red solo cup with pretzels, chocolate chips used for baking and craisins. And then I would take it to my room and eat it as quickly as I could in fear that either of my parents may hear me and judge me for “falling off the wagon” – which is completely absurd because they would never have judged. But, because we never kept any “treats” in the house, I couldn’t self-regulate my cravings and had a continuous fear that I had to eat all the chocolate because I didn’t know when I was going to be able to have it next.

At this point in my story, I want to apologize to all the families for whom I babysat for from the age of 15-21: I am sorry I raided your pantries, ate your snacks, and took the wrappers with me so you never saw it. I’m sorry I took the money you paid me for taking care of your children and went straight to CVS to buy laxatives in attempt to get-rid of all she sh*t I had consumed. To my parents – I am sorry I thought you would judge me for not being the “healthy” kid everyone thought I was. And most importantly – I am sorry to my 18-year-old self who thought food was the answer to her anxiety. I’m sorry to my young self that I fell victim to all the diet culture out there and swore off all unhealthy foods. I’m sorry I never got to enjoy those treats without guilt and never learned to enjoy “just a little”.

But as I write this and reflect on my experience has a “young healthy eater”, I can recognize that I really did love healthy foods. I loved fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, whole grains, fish, lean protein and dairy. As an athlete, these foods made me feel strong and full of energy, and genuinely they tasted good. I just wish I didn’t see “healthy” and “unhealthy” as mutually exclusive components to my “diet”. Now, I understand the importance of balance and the “all foods fit” mentality. That when we ditch the rules and ditch the diets, we can eat as we like and learn what makes us feel good and what makes us feel like crap. I eat a lot of unhealthy foods, but my portions have become much smaller and I am often craving healthy whole foods because I FEEL better when I eat them. But, let’s be honest, I had Carvel twice in one week a few weeks back, because that’s what I wanted. It didn’t make me a bad or unhealthy person, nor did those 2 soft-serve cones change what I looked like in the mirror. And to be honest, I haven’t craved ice cream since – because I know if I want it – I am allowed to have it!

So – what have I taken away from my experience growing up in a “healthy house”? I have learned that early and continual exposure to healthy and diverse foods DO foster a preference for healthy food during childhood. But I also learned that allowing children to enjoy the not-so-healthy foods is just as important in their eating journey. Deprivation is not the way forward. Personally, I will keep treats in the house for my children and allow them to have them when they want. But I will also keep an abundance of healthy options and educate them about the importance of nutrition, but not in the name of weight. I will encourage balance. I will also encourage my children to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full, even if they didn’t finish all their vegetables…

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