Identity and Nutrition

Would you invite a whole food plant-based dietitian to a Standard American cookie decorating party?

We all have labels that are part of our identity. Some of those labels we choose for ourselves and some we don’t. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I chose to spend many years studying and working to earn that label. However, sometimes the dietitian label makes me look very different to some people than how I see myself. For example, a very common misconception is that dietitians are part of the “food police” meaning we are watching and judging what other people eat. I know dietitians are not the food police, but just like many people associate movies with popcorn, we are often associated with food police. So, do you really want to invite the food police to a cookie decorating party? My guess is probably not.

At one point in my career, some of my patients also thought of the dietitian’s office as the confessional. They would come in and confess their food transgressions. I never wanted the roles of the food police or a priest getting patients to admit their nutrition sins, but somehow the “RD” behind my name came with these other added labels that I didn’t know about or want. People saw me differently than I saw myself, which creates a sense of confusion around my identity including who I am, what my job is, what is expected, and what’s important to me. 

The example of a dietitian being associated with the food police is a small one. From counseling different individuals, I have heard of many more intense examples of identity confusion. For example, picture an engineer. What do they look like to you? How do you think they would act at a cookie decorating party? Now imagine that engineer is also a woman. Does that change how you view the engineer? What if this woman engineer is 6’2”’ tall and her mother is from Mexico and her father from the Philippines? How do you think that person would act at a cookie decorating party? Can you even imagine that person? For most of us, this person would be unique, maybe even one-of-a kind. Because this person doesn’t fit into an already set category in our brains, we have no reference to draw on to easily predict how they might behave. Our brains love to categorize people and things to make decision making faster and it makes us feel like we have a sense of comfort. We know what to do if we are familiar with what something is and we can predict what it will do.  When a person’s identity doesn’t fit a specific category, that person’s identity may be tested more than someone who fits a stereotype. 

The proposed definition of identity confusion entails the individual’s feelings being mixed up, which can create a lack of purpose and direction in life. One’s identity does not feel continuous or the same in different situations. When people are free to choose the values, morals, and goals that make up their identity and then feel they can be that identity in different situations or times in their life, it is called identity synthesis. They experience themselves as a whole person versus constantly having to change who they are to survive different situations. During adolescence, having some identity confusion may be normal, but if individuals score high on identity confusion, they often have more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and lower self esteem1. In a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers found identity confusion increased risks of body dissatisfaction and bulimia symptoms,3. Identity synthesis seemed to protect against developing bulimia and the drive for thinness in high school students2,3. Several studies have investigated how developing a healthy identity and emotional regulation can protect against eating disorder symptoms and body dissatisfaction 4,5,6,7,8,9. Even though body dissatisfaction is a predictor of developing an eating disorder, it may not be the main driver for everyone who develops an eating disorder. Trauma, food insecurity, stress, discriminatory stress, and depression have all been shown to increase binge eating behavior10. Promoting healthy identity development has been advocated in Eating Disorder Prevention Programs for many years11.

So how do we help children and adolescents create a healthy identity when it relates to food and their body? Here are 3 ways to encourage a healthy identity. 

  1.  Be Slow to Label

Since our brains love to categorize behaviors, things, and people, it is easy to label our kids or the people around us. Our brains are trying to make sense of a situation. If a kid refuses to try a new food that we enjoy, then we may just say “They are picky”. Quickly categorizing a kid as picky or fussy allows the brain to sort the situation and move on. In reality, refusing to try a new food could be for many reasons, such as: 

  1. Starting to feel sick
  2. Anxious
  3. Tired
  4. Overstimulated
  5. Observed other people not enjoying that dish
  6. Not hungry
  7. Feeling pain
  8. Fear of unknown

In most of these examples, the child is uncomfortable and when we are uncomfortable, we may not want to try something new. We want to feel comforted, and we want to eat foods we know. That’s why we have comfort foods. We know what these foods taste like, how they feel in our mouth, and how they will feel as it digests in our body. 

Another common label is “good eater” or “not good eater”. What does that even mean really? Often I hear “good eater” when a young child finishes all the food on their plate or eats a significant amount of food. If the goal is for the child to eat everything on their plate, then the conclusion that the child is a “good eater” is true. This often does make us happy as parents, because there is potentially less food waste or clean up. Also, we may feel a sense of pride that our child is getting enough nutrients for them to grow. However, having a kid eat everything on their plate is not building a feeding skill. Instead, it is measuring whether or not that child is being obedient to the grown-up. If we want children to become adults who have healthy eating behaviors, then we should focus on helping them develop their feeding skills. Just like any other skill such as learning math or potty training, there will be mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process. When kids are learning about how to feed their body, they will also make mistakes and the grown-ups in their life can be there to help them work through those mistakes without shame or guilt.   

Building these skills takes time and effort and will never be perfect. The goal is just to get the kids to look internally for bodily cues such as hunger and fullness. In order to help kids check in with their body more often, I wrote a book about a gut bacterium named Biffie (short for Bifidobacteria). In the book, Feed Biffie, Biffie the bacterium, is trying to get the attention of his owner, Larry. Larry learns how to listen and take care of Biffie and the other gut bacteria, and in turn feels better. Biffie is a cute little character to help kids listen to their gut more often and better recognize their bodily cues. Reading books or telling stories about food and the body is a fun way to help kids build feeding skills. 

2. Choose Growth Mindset Labels

Instead of using Fixed Labels, that may not last throughout different situations and times in our lives, let’s focus on Growth Mindset Labels. In the first example of a child who refuses to try the new food, we could say, “You are such a good observer. What words would you use to describe how this dish looks or smells?” Now we are using labels that also serve as reminders on how to build feeding skills. 

In the children’s book Feed Biffie, the boy Larry is learning to have a growth mindset. He wants to take care of his gut bacterium Biffie and eat a variety of plants to feed the bacteria different types of fibers. For years, Larry only ate two types of plants, and he was afraid to try new foods. His new goal becomes:

I will search plant recipes; find the way I like it best. 

Raw, chunky, shaved, steamed, mixed, dipped, or roasted with lemon zest

For some kids it will take 20 or more exposures to a food before someone acquires a taste for it, but also, there are infinite ways to try that plant. So, can we ever really say we don’t like a certain plant or groups of foods? 

Since our brain likes to categorize things, including food, it is easy to dismiss a whole group of foods. I have counseled many adults who said, “I don’t like vegetables. I guess I can choke them down because I know they are good for me.” It takes work to undo the association that vegetables are healthy but taste bad. To help undo this association, my clients and I would work together to make a list of vegetable dishes that they do enjoy eating. Often, I find, they do like a variety of vegetables. However, two things often block them from identifying themselves as someone who likes vegetables. First, they paired the vegetable with something they did not categorize as perfectly healthy. There are no perfectly healthy foods, because no one food gives your body all the nutrients that it needs to function. However, most people agree that vegetables provide many nutrients for our body, and therefore categorize them as “super healthy”. If you pair a “super healthy” food with another food item that you aren’t sure how “healthy” it is such as Ranch Dressing or cheese, then your brain may sort that meal as “not healthy”. Broccoli does not provide less nutrients just because you added Ranch dip, and you don’t have to enjoy eating half of a plate of raw broccoli in order to be considered someone who likes vegetables. The second thing that blocks adults from identifying as someone who likes vegetables, is not liking all vegetables. They often had specific childhood stories about certain bitter vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, asparagus, or spinach and how they had to choke them down otherwise they would get punished, shamed for not being grateful, or did not earn a dessert. So their brain just starts to lump all vegetables as not enjoyable or that they are a person who does not enjoy vegetables.  It takes quite a bit of work to undo these kinds of associations and so instead, try to give Growth Mindset Labels that are helpful to learning the feeding skills to become a “healthy eater”. 

Some ideas for Growth Mindset Labels around food could be:

  1. Adventurous Eater – A person who wants to try foods from different cultures in the hopes to travel there one day.
  2. Experimental Eater – A person who enjoys experimenting with different combinations of foods or different ways to prepare the food.
  3. Food Critic – A person who provides detailed descriptions of food texture, taste, and smell and even works on arranging the food to make it look appealing.

All these labels can also be turned into games or a way to play pretend with kids. Families can spin a globe and learn about that country’s national dish to reinforce being an adventurous eater. Having the kids be part of the meal preparation, even if they are just playing with the measuring cups and food scraps, may inspire an experimental mindset around food. Finally, having the adults and kids take turns describing the meal as if they were a food critic, helps children have fun while learning words that describe food. The goal is to come up with a way to improve the dish or a new way to cook the specific plant. For example, if they describe the cooked broccoli as too mushy, you could say say, “Did you know that my friend loves crunchy raw broccoli with dip? Maybe that’s the way you will like broccoli.” If the kid describes the food as “yuck” or “gross”, ask for more details. This game helps strengthen observation and communication skills and builds vocabulary. 

3, Teach How to Reject Labels

Undoing an association such as vegetables are healthy but taste bad can be tough. Undoing an association after holding onto it for 30 years is going to be much more difficult than rejecting that association the first time you were given that thought. When a family member, friend, coach, movie, or advertisement exposes your kid to an unhealthy food association, it is a great opportunity to talk about a better food association to replace it with. Instead of the association that vegetables are healthy, but taste bad, a few replacements ideas are:

  1. Vegetables give color to the meal. 
  2. Vegetables provide fiber to feed Biffie
  3. Vegetables provide the smooth or crunchy texture to the meal.

People label foods, but we also label each other. If someone labels your children, help them recognize these Fixed Labels.  A Fixed Label that often comes up with middle aged men is “skinny”. As a “skinny kid”, they were told that they needed to eat more. With this Fixed Label, they would ignore their fullness signals and consume excessive amounts of food to “bulk up”. Cutting out cardiovascular exercise and adding in extra heavy weightlifting would often be included in order to increase their size. In their eyes, skinny was not associated with being masculine. Overtime, these combined behaviors of ignoring fullness signals, not doing cardiovascular exercise, and consuming only a few plants led some of these men to have high cholesterol or high blood pressure. We are teaching kids how to eat for the rest of their life, not just while they are a kid. So, unless someone is malnourished because of anorexia or another medical concern, adults should not encourage kids to ignore their fullness signals or consume mostly protein or avoid fruits and vegetables.

Our brains are hardwired to sort objects, places, ideas, and people into different categories. Because of this, we are all going to label things. However, as soon as we realize that we labeled something, we can ask the question, “Is that really true?” Then ask, “Does that label fit with my values?” Finally, spend some time creating a replacement thought. 

We will never be able to disrupt every association or label thrown at our children, but helping them learn the skill of rejecting labels and replacing them with Growth Mindset Labels will hopefully lead to a healthy identity.

Want to learn more about Biffie? 

Buy the book or card game at https://www.feedbiffie.com

Book is now available on Amazon at Feed Biffie book on Amazon 

References:

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