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Building a Healthy Relationship with Food

By Megan Cremins, Type One Together's Nutritionist

Our relationship with food starts when we are young.

As parents, you have the opportunity to help shape how your child navigates food for the rest of their life. And while this thought can be daunting, it can also be empowering. You can equip your child with the tools to enjoy food and live a full life– even with T1D!

Before we go into how to build it, let’s first address what a healthy relationship with food looks like. It’s going to be different for everyone, but can be summed up as:

A healthy relationship with food involves accepting all different kinds of food to help feed and nourish your body while enjoying what you eat. It can involve aspects of an intuitive eating mindset that utilizes use of hunger and fullness cues which lets your body know how much and when to eat. – Children’s hospital NOLA

In other words, letting go of restriction, labeling foods as “good and bad”, and seeing food as both nourishment AND enjoyment.

But things can get a little complicated with type 1 diabetes. The hyperfocus on carb counting (and the tendency to restrict foods) can inadvertently lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.

In fact, there are higher rates of disordered eating and eating disorders among t1ds:

  • For adolescents with T1D, 37.9% of females and 15.9% of males reported disordered eating. (i)

  • Some studies have estimated the prevalence of any eating disorder among the population with type 1 to be 10% to 33%, compared with an estimated 3.8% among the general population. (ii)

While it’s not parents alone that shape a child’s relationship with food, you can certainly help steer your child in the right direction. Here’s a few areas to focus:

Curiosity Over Judgment

One of the most effective ways to help children with T1D develop a healthy relationship with food is to approach their food preferences with curiosity rather than judgment. Instead of imposing rigid rules, encourage open communication with your child about what they enjoy eating and why. By doing so, you can help them explore their tastes and preferences, fostering a sense of autonomy and self-awareness.

Mental and Physical Benefits of Food

It's important to remember that food is not just about nutrition; it also plays a significant role in our lives. Food can create lasting memories, bring families together, and hold cultural significance. Emphasize the mental and emotional benefits of food, highlighting its role in celebrations, traditions, and the simple pleasure of enjoying a meal together as a family.

Gentle Nutrition

Instead of imposing strict dietary rules, consider adopting the philosophy of "gentle nutrition." This approach challenges the black-and-white thinking often associated with food. Children tend to think in absolutes anyways, so labeling foods (good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, good or bad for blood sugars) can create lifelong negative perceptions that lead to restriction or avoidance.

Instead, encourage moderation and flexibility by allowing all foods and focusing on balanced meals. You can learn more about this in our eBook.

Addition, Not Subtraction

When managing blood sugar levels, it's essential to understand that carbohydrates are not the enemy. Instead of eliminating carbs, candy, or dessert, teach your child about the concept of pairing foods. Adding protein, fiber, and healthy fats to carbohydrates can slow down the absorption of glucose, helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels. This approach allows your child to enjoy a variety of foods while managing their diabetes effectively.

Lead by Example

Your children watch you. If you struggle with your relationship to food, they may be inclined to the same. Working on your own relationship with food can ensure that they grow up with positive food role models. And beyond parents, your endocrinologist, dietitians, and doctors play a role too! Ensure that your healthcare team aligns with the idea of helping your child form a healthy relationship with food.

A healthy relationship to food, especially with type one, isn’t built overnight. Working with a registered dietitian or therapist that aligns with this philosophy can help ensure you are taking the right steps toward building a lasting positive relationship with food for your child.

  1. Neumark-Sztainer D, Patterson J, Mellin A, et al. Weight control practices and disordered eating behaviors among adolescent females and males with type 1 diabetes: associations with sociodemographics, weight concerns, familial factors, and metabolic outcomes. Diabetes Care. 2002;25(8):1289–96

Bermudez O, Sommer J. T1D intel: learning about the dual diagnosis of an eating disorder and type 1 diabetes. JDRF website. Published October 15, 2012. Accessed November 18, 2019.

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