By Hedley Turk
How do you as a parent help your child overcome an addiction to unhealthy food? By overcoming your own addiction first.
Most children who are addicted to unhealthy food are getting that food in the home. Children also engage in behavior modeled after their parents. If you want your child to stop eating unhealthy food, you need to lead by example.
This is the area of health where most of us face our greatest challenges. We want to eat healthier, we want to be healthier, but when it comes to eating right, we just can't seem to do it.
The problem is that what we eat has less to do with our intellect and more to do with the associations we have to food: a link in your mind between an emotion and an experience, person, place or thing.
Take, for example, a person who has a fear of dogs. Such a fear is often the result of the person having been attacked or severely frightened by a dog, which has created an association in the person's mind, linking dogs with fear. Now, every time the person sees a dog, even if it's a friendly one, he or she will experience fear.
Food is another area where we've created associations. Once upon a time, you ate a food - a piece of cake or chocolate, or a bowl of ice cream - and you liked the way it tasted. At that moment, you created an association in your mind linking the food to feeling good. And each time you ate that food, it continued to make you feel good, further strengthening the association.
The result is an association to food that is extremely strong, as strong, if not stronger, than the person who has a fear of dogs. If I tell that person that the dog approaching is friendly, it won't matter, because associations generally override intellect and that person will still be afraid of the dog. If I tell you that a food is bad for you, it also won't matter because your associations will override your intellect and you will eat that food anyway.
This is why it's so hard to give up certain foods. Your intellect is telling you that a food is bad for you, but your emotions, which are actually your associations, are telling you the food will make you feel good.
Five steps to giving up unhealthy foods So how can you give up something that makes you feel good?
1. Become motivated. The first and most important step to overcoming a food addiction is motivation. You have to want to make the change. Your motivation can come from different sources, such as:
- a doctor's diagnosis of a health condition that will worsen unless you lose weight;
- a desire to be healthy enough to participate with your kids in activities and sports;
- wanting to be alive to see your children graduate high school or college, or to see them have families of their own; or
- an interest in setting a good example for your kids and giving them the opportunity to live a long and healthy life.
2. Identify positive associations. The second step to overcoming a food addiction is identifying your current associations to the food that you want to stop eating by asking yourself the following question: Why do I eat this food? Be honest. Does it make you feel good? Does it give you pleasure? Does it satisfy you? Does it relax you?
3. Associate eating the target food with negative effects.The third step is to create new powerful negative associations to the food that you want to stop eating. Remember, it's very difficult to give up something that makes you feel good and gives you pleasure. Therefore, you need to change the way you feel about the food from a positive to a negative - to understand that eating this food will likely:
- prevent you from participating with your kids in activities and sports
- reduce the chances that you will live to see your children graduate high school or college, or see them have families of their own
- set a bad example for your kids which they will emulate and suffer for in the long run.
4. Create association between not eating food with your motivations. The fourth step is to create new positive associations to not eating food. The goal is that every time you resist the urge to eat the unhealthy food, you will feel pleasure, and each time thereafter that you resist the urge, you will feel even more pleasure, thereby reinforcing the association as well as building your strength and confidence.
5. Anchor the new negative and positive associations. The fifth and final step to overcoming a food addiction is to anchor your new associations. Anchoring an association is a way of reinforcing it, or making the link in your mind stronger. An association is anchored when a strong emotion is involved, as in the case of the fear of dogs, or through repetition, as is often the case with food.
Keep in mind that you may have to do this process more than once. Overcoming a food addiction is not easy, but if you're motivated and committed to doing it, it can be done.
And, most importantly, by showing that you can overcome your addictions to unhealthy food, your children will be encouraged to overcome theirs!
Hedley Turk, a former personal trainer, writes about overcoming his own food addiction in his new book, Why Intelligent People Are Overweight. He lives in Great Neck, N.Y., where he helps others overcome their food addictions and lead healthier lives.
Posted May 10, 2011