Sumner Brooks & Amee Severson, HOW TO RAISE AN INTUITIVE EATER

Sumner Brooks & Amee Severson, HOW TO RAISE AN INTUITIVE EATER

Nutritional therapist Sumner Brooks and dietitian nutritionist Amee Severson join Zibby to talk about their book, How to Raise an Intuitive Eater. The three dive into conversations about dismantling diet culture, their favorite methods of implementing intuitive eating habits in their own homes, and what to do if you think your child may be veering into an eating disorder. Sumner and Amee also share the importance of parenting yourself and trusting that your children will know what is best for their bodies.


Zibby Owens: Today, I am so excited that both Sumner Brooks and Amee Severson are here to talk about How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence.

Sumner Brooks: We are so happy to be here, Zibby. Thank you.

Amee Severson: Thank you for having us. We’re excited to talk to you today.

Zibby: Why don’t the two of you start off by talking about the very important message from your introduction about different types of people, how there are so many things facing us today in different groups. Some groups are actually at risk for more eating problems, how there is such great food insecurity. I think you said something like one in six kids don’t even know where their next meal is coming from, which is just really hard to wrap my mind around. It’s just horrific. Before we can get into even how to raise an intuitive eater, that implies that you have the luxury of being able to think about food and provide the food. Why don’t you start with that context? Then we can get into the nitty-gritty.

Sumner: Sure. Amee, do you want to start, or do you want me to go?

Amee: I can start. One of the things that was really important for us was to hold the space for the fact that food insecurity for children, for everybody, but especially children in the United States, is a really real problem. If we just look at intuitive eating on the surface, it feels like it misses a lot of the space for that food insecurity and for a lot of these groups of people that you mentioned that we can kind of just miss in basic intuitive eating, the idea of, eat what you want when you want. Make sure you have lots of food around all the time. If you don’t have enough money, if you don’t have enough resources, that isn’t something that can happen. It’s going to look differently for different people. The kids that are at higher risk for developing eating disorders and are often missed in a lot of these conversations about how to provide acceptance, how to provide unconditional love, we really wanted to make sure were not just included, but more centered in this conversation that have traditionally been the case. It was a really important thing for both Sumner and I to make sure that we didn’t go down the same road that everyone else has gone down. We made sure that everyone was as included as we possibly could make it, as two white people could make it, and really wanted to make that a focal point of our work.

Zibby: Excellent. As you point out, kids are born, babies are born with this intuitive, natural ability. They know when they’re hungry, though sometimes parents can’t tell if their cries are for hunger or something else. It’s pretty instinctive. They need it. They push you away when they’re done. They just turn their heads, as any nursing mother may have experienced, sometimes before you think they’ve had enough. You never know, but they seem to know what they want to do, kids, babies. Then somehow over the years, it gets more and more confusing, particularly when you have parents who bring in their own food issues and how diet culture has affected many parents, especially today when the parents today, so many of us grew up in an environment that really focused on that. Now here we are trying to raise our kids. Talk about that. Where do we go from here? How do we mess up? How can we get kids back, and grown-ups too, but how do we get our kids to be intuitive eaters and not inherent any sort of eating issues that our generation holds the burden of? Big question. Sorry.

Sumner: This book covers a lot of different topics within the topic of how to raise a child to have a healthy relationship with food and body. There’s not a whole lot of opportunities for adult, parents, really anyone in general to unpack and take the time to think about, how are they feeling about their own relationship with food and body? How are they observing their child’s relationship with food and body? It is just not something that’s really prioritized all that much in our culture. What we do see prioritized a lot is weight control and dieting and food rules. That has been passed down now through multiple generations, so much so that it feels really normal and just everyday. The book gives people an opportunity to slow down around all of this and really give some thought and attention to their concerns and why this matters to them. We spend the first couple parts of the book really slowing down around, what are the problems? Why is this a concern for the mental health and the physical health of kids? Then we give an opportunity to have parents unpack their own history, which ends up making a lot of sense by the time you get to the how-to part of this because you realize how deeply emotional this all is and how engrained some of our problems are. The how-to of it is a really big part of the book, but it’s also more about just giving some time to this conversation to start with.

Zibby: Yes, which is so important. How were you two raised?

Amee: I was raised in a pretty dieting household. I can name all the diet books that my mom had on her bookshelf, all the times my aunts would go to WeightWatchers. I can list off all those experiences. I was started on diets really early as a kid. I was raised in the thick of this and never knew anything different. That was one of the priorities I had in raising my own daughter, was switching that. My perspective comes in when we talk a lot about being raised as a dieter and what that can feel like, what that can do to you as a human.

Sumner: Mine was a little more covert. I think that I had an experience that is very average for parents in the eighties and nineties and even today. Any dieting influence was really presented as just about health and about staying healthy and taking care of your body. That’s the place that so many parents are at today. They just don’t see how much potential harm can come from this focus on food and weight control. We refer to that over and over as diet culture, but a lot of people aren’t even familiar with the term diet culture. There’s becoming more awareness around it. What the takeaway from that is — Amee was raised in a very explicit dieting household. I was raised in a maybe less explicit, but still, I got the message, the message of what’s right, what’s wrong, and what we need to be aiming for when it comes to our bodies. Kids are still getting that absolutely everywhere today, if not more so.

Zibby: How do you make sure to raise kids who view their bodies as instruments that you need to fine-tune with what you put in and that it’s about health, it’s not about external perceptions of their body or what society wants, and that they need to fuel their body properly? Maybe what I’ve just said is an assumption that’s not even true or that’s not even a good one to have. That’s sort of my default. What do you make of that?

Amee: We shift the focus a lot to really making sure that kids are getting enough and they feel comfortable around food and they know that not only will there be enough food — this is where the food insecurity can be a little bit of a snag because sometimes there isn’t enough food. We really want to hold space when we can. Kids just need food. Food is the most important thing, no matter what that food is. Another focus we have a lot is neutralizing the food. Food is just food. This is an experience I think parents have in a lot of other places around with kids. When we give something power, when we make it exciting, when it’s new, when it’s off-limits, it’s a lot more exciting than, eat your broccoli. If we can neutralize it all — it should be all neutral. A cake should be just as exciting as an apple because it is just food. The more we can neutralize it, the more kids feel comfortable existing around it and making choices around it and knowing that there will always be cake. There will always be apples. There will always be chicken, whatever else is there. Really just helping them know that they can fuel their bodies in the way that feels good for them, that they can troubleshoot. There are going to be days where my daughter has a small bowl of cereal before school, and she’s hungry by nine AM before they have snack time at school. We talk about that and figure out a way to add something in so she has more food in her body so she doesn’t get super hungry before snack. Those are the things that we can do. It’s not about, well, you had the wrong choice. Okay, do you want to have a yogurt with that? Do you want to add something else to that? Just letting them recognize that their bodies will ask for things. Their bodies will be a trustworthy thing for them to listen to.

Zibby: Sometimes if they just want pancakes or bread or a bagel in the morning, I’m like, “You do realize that this the same as my pouring a giant thing of flour into your lap. That’s basically all you’re eating, is a big bowl of flour. Would you think that’s going to be enough to carry you through the day? No, you need something else.”

Amee: Sometimes it’s closer to enough. A lot of times, I just find it’s not enough food. I’ll just throw a Go-Gurt on the side. My kid is currently really into smoothies, so there’s always a smoothie involved.

Sumner: One of the things you mentioned earlier, Zibby, it was right on. The moment a human is born, they are already operating with these instincts to let their body direct when they need to eat and how much they need to eat. A lot of parents will freak out about that. What do you mean my kid can sort of be in charge of their eating? What is really important to clarify, it’s one thing when an infant is just drinking milk for the first few months of life. What we tend to see happens is that the introduction of solid foods is the point where the parents’, maybe, bias or the parents’ food stuff starts to enter the picture. It can be that early when we begin to see a separation from the internal body ques, like if a parent, for example, starts to think, that’s too much. They’re done. I’m going to decide they’re done. Or, have more, have more, have more. Those are very simple, very typical, well-intentioned ways that a parent might start to over-direct or over-control a child’s eating. When we’re talking about raising an intuitive eater, one of the things we’re talking about is really a focus on supporting their natural ability to eat, creating an environment that allows them to stay attuned and to stay pretty self-directed with their eating.

We talk about a flexible feeding routine, which really helps a child because, number one, a young child is not developmentally capable of deciding what to put together and what to have for dinner. That is absolutely the caregiver’s role. We differentiate between, what is the child’s role here that we’re really supporting and fostering? Then what is the caregiver’s role? This is not a situation where it’s a free-for-all and you just let the kids walk into the pantry and decide what’s for dinner. They really need our support with that when it comes to getting all the different food groups and balanced meals to put together so that then they can do their job, which is, what am I hungry for of this food? How much of it do I want to eat? That’s just really an intuitive process. It’s not a cognitive process. We don’t need kids to think about protein, carbs, and fats. We don’t need kids to think about food labels and calories. We just need to help set them up to be able to feel calm and comfortable and confident enough to choose what to eat from what’s in front of them.

Zibby: If I put, in front of my kids, like you were saying, chicken, an apple, and a piece of cake, they are going to eat the cake. They are going to love the cake. They will be much more excited about the cake than the apple, as, frankly, probably would I if I was just eating whatever I felt like eating. Maybe this is, again, my own thing. I feel like it’s hard to sell the appeal of an apple next to the appeal of an ice cream cone with sprinkles. Do you think that’s all cultural and not — deconstruct this for me.

Sumner: Absolutely. First of all, think about this. If you gave your child cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner one day and then the next day and then the next day, how soon do you think it would be before your child was actually really rather preferring that chicken?

Zibby: I don’t think that would ever happen.

Sumner: That is a lot of information right there. It shows how far away we get from this truth, this fact that our body is constantly on a quest for balance and blood sugar balance and homeostasis. Our really complex hormones and neurochemicals, our whole appetite system is actually designed to keep us on this course. Absolutely, if a child maybe or if anybody has not had a lot of access to a certain food or if it’s just always put on a pedestal and is like, you have to eat all your something before you can have your dessert, whatever that is, there’s a whole big pattern going on here before we get to the point where the kid sits down with the apple, the cake, and the chicken and we observe what decision they make. There’s a whole lot there that’s not just about the apple, the chicken, and the cake.

Zibby: Is it ever too late? When it too late to neutralize a situation like that?

Amee: I don’t think it’s ever too late. The original intuitive eating concept is for adults. This isn’t extremely different. It’s just getting in the way of going down that road too far before we now have to undo it as adults. It’s just fostering what’s already there in kids. It’s not too late. It’s never too late. I’ve seen eighty-year-olds do this work before. I think for kids in particular, we can always create the space for it. Like you said, if you were to give your kids cake every day for every meal, you’re not sure if they would ever —

Zibby: — They would love it. They would be so happy. I swear, they would be so happy.

Amee: I want to throw the counterpoint out there that I got bored the other night, actually, and made a cake. I was just bored. I had the house to myself. That’s what I did on a house-to-myself night. My kid didn’t eat a single piece of the cake. It was funfetti cake. She loves that cake. She didn’t want it. There wasn’t a single day where she was like, I think I want to have cake. She just didn’t want it. It’s not because she’s special or amazing. She actually really likes sweet things. She got really excited about some mochi we found at Trader Joe’s the other day. It’s because we have dessert. She had a scoop of Häagen-Dazs with dinner last night, but she ate her chicken before she ate her ice cream. That’s not because she’s better at this than anybody else. It’s because we had to do some undoing. We had to do some work to make it known that there will always be dessert. It’s not, this is your only chance to have ice cream. This is the only time this week we’re going to have a sweet thing after dinner. We just have some dessert with dinner. You can choose what you’re going to eat. If you’re still hungry, we’ll talk about what else you can have. It’s cool to see kids do that. It’s cool to see it change because it does change. Most people come into this really scared. If I let this happen, my kid’s only going to eat cake. My kid’s only going to eat ice cream or candy, or whatever that food is. It does shift. It’s really cool to see it shift.

Sumner: Here’s another really important part of this. It gets missed. We don’t talk about it. Every time a child has an opportunity to experience what happens when they eat too many cupcakes or drink too much juice, that is the way that they begin to learn. That is how they learn, you know what, that doesn’t feel good. We don’t even need to add anything into that equation. No judgement. No shame. No, you know what, I told you do. No, next time, I’m going to control my child and not let them do that. This just happened over the weekend at a birthday party with my daughter. She did have too many cupcakes. I didn’t have to say a word about what happened, what she might learn from that, what she might want to think about doing differently. All I needed to do was say, “I’m sorry your tummy doesn’t feel good. Let’s have some water.” We actually did have cake that night. It was my dad’s birthday, so there were two cakes on the table. You know what? She did have some, but she asked for a tiny, little piece, which was surprising to me. Me at seven years old, I was saying, give me the biggest piece. I was observing this. This is all about trust. If we as adults can’t trust ourselves, it’s very difficult to imagine that a child can trust their body. We also need to reestablish how we evaluate when a child does overeat, that it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a really natural learning experience. What we can be aware of is not piling on any judgement or shame or letting that reinforce for us, see, they can’t be trusted.

Zibby: On a tactical level, there are two pieces, really. It’s dealing with ourselves as parents. You call it reparenting or talking to your inner child or basically coming to terms with your own issues. Then it’s the, what do I do with my own kids? How do I do that? If we’re tackling stage one, which could be years of therapy, but let’s give it a chapter, some people have a lot to undo. Some people don’t. People come at this across the whole spectrum, of course, like everything. How have you seen this be more effectively handled, to reparent yourself or deal with your own demons, if you will, enough to be able to objectively feed your kids and get them to follow this plan? This way of life. Not a plan. This philosophy.

Sumner: There’s a couple really great true stories in the book that we include for this. Amee and I have both spent — we’ve probably worked with hundreds or thousands of adults behind closed doors who have been inside this process. As with intuitive eating, it often comes about when someone feels like they’ve reached what’s called diet rock bottom, which is just, I am so unhappy living this way. The more I focus on food, the worse I feel, the worse my eating becomes. They hit this point naturally where they realize something’s got to shift. To then be even introduced to the idea that there is a way to begin making peace with food and body and accepting the fact that this is a journey, this unfolds over time, this is not an overnight thing like a diet quick fix is, what we see is that people who really can identify that, “This is no longer working for me,” and then they take the time to get back in touch with their body, get back in tune with, “I can be present with what’s happening when I’m making food choices. I can approach this from not a place of hating my body and shaming my body, but from a place of, food is about self-care. I care about how I eat because that changes how I feel in my life –” That’s why we included the parent or the caregiver section first. Until you can really connect the dots there, it’s really hard to get to that, it’s so important for me to trust my child. I want them to trust their body. I want to trust their body. We got to work at this. This is how we do this. We slow down around all of this. We push out the diet thoughts. We challenge all these crazy diet claims and food rules. Then we learn from what happens.

Amee: Also, I think that no parent has to be and a perfect intuitive eater has to be at a certain place in order to start to do this process with their kids. Just the nature of parenting means that this stuff is going to come up in us as we go through the process no matter who we are, no matter where we are. There is a truth to being able to do this kind of in conjunction. We can reparent ourselves while also working on this with our kids because this stuff will come up. There will be times where something happens for our kids. We hear something they learn at school. We are trying to feed them. Suddenly, we’re like, oh, my god, this definitely hit one of those places in me. If we’re doing that work, we can sit with it. We can see what it is. If you’re working with a professional, you can take it to whoever that person is. If you’re not, you can look at it for yourself and really unpack that. I think that’s really important. You don’t have to be perfect. We’re not waiting for you to hit a certain finish line before you can start to do this with your kids. We can start to do it at the same time. We talk a lot in the book about, one, having a lot of self-compassion for yourself. That’s one of our biggest themes, is self-compassion. The other thing we talk a lot about is how you can fake until you make it a little bit because I feel like that’s kind of parenting sometimes.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love that. Just one last question. What do you do if a child recognizes that they’re not eating in a healthy way but that they feel like it’s hard for them to control it? They recognize that they’re maybe eating cake four times a week. They want to make changes, but they find it very difficult, which I relate to. I find making eating changes very difficult, giving up things that I love even though intellectually, I know when I trust myself, I don’t necessarily always eat healthy if I were to just do it. How do you help a child who’s saying, you know what, maybe I don’t want to eat all this, but it’s really hard for me to stop? What then?

Sumner: I think it depends on what age they are. As a parent, I would consider any time when your child is coming to you with an acknowledgment that something’s not feeling right or that something’s not working for them, definitely, that’s a flag raised to be really curious about. How big of a problem is this? There can often be a situation where there’s more to the story than is being shared. When it comes to food and eating disorders, that part of the more to the story could be deadly. It could be very dangerous. It could be needing a medical intervention. We want to approach this with curiosity and always give a child the sense that they’re safe to tell us what’s really going on. That might take a little while to get the story. Something I want to say here that’s super important it’s that sometimes — let’s say, for example, this is a teenager who’s saying this. Their intention to “eat healthier” may not actually be about health. It may be about weight, appearance, size, shape. That actually may be signs of an eating disorder. Anytime someone feels like they can’t stop eating or they feel out of control with food, those are signs of an eating disorder that could really need some professional attention. What we want parents to hear is that if a child comes to them with a concern that they want to be dieting or losing weight — oftentimes, that can sound like, I want to eat healthier.

We as a parent, we don’t want to reflect back to them, yeah, I agree. I agree some weight loss would be good for you. I agree, let’s only eat healthy. Let’s do it together. These are absolutely some of the problematic patterns that we’re talking about avoiding in our book because these are the things that can lead to lifelong dysregulated or disordered eating, lifelong struggles with food and body image. As an alternative — we don’t want to just hear what we shouldn’t do. We need to hear, what can we do? We want to ask questions. We want to say, tell me more about this. When are you noticing this? When did you first begin to feel this way? Tell me what happens when you’re experiencing this. How is it feeling for you? What do you think is going on? What do you think could be helpful? Saying, I’m here for you to always make sure that you get the food that you feel like you need to be eating. I want to make sure you get enough food. You need to have enough food. I don’t ever want to see you not getting enough because that’s not going to be helpful for you. That’s not healthy for you. I would begin the conversation from that lens.

Amee: I had a very similar thought of checking to see what the intention is of that. We mention this statistic in the book. I think it’s a really important one. Kids as young as four are often already starting to fear their body size or wanting to change their body size. Anyone who’s ever attempted to change their body, has ever gone on a diet hates the idea of a four-year-old thinking the same thing. That’s a preschooler. That is a scary thought for a preschooler to have. Knowing that these biases, these thoughts are already there, they exist, it’s fed a lot by not just the things that they see at home, which is the things that we say, the things that they see on TV — heck, even in Disney movies, it’s always weirdly implied. This messaging is really fed. We don’t want our kids to feel that way about their bodies, so really unpacking why. If they’re constantly feeling like they’re sick, that might be a different conversation than if they are really afraid of what a cake is doing to them or afraid of not eating healthy enough for the sake of eating healthy enough.

Really unpacking what’s happening there and just asking — one of the questions we bring up, we say you can ask a kid, you can start to bring into the conversations more, and especially when you’re feeling afraid of what’s happening, afraid of them asking for another cookie, is, how are you? How are you? Really wanting to know the answer, really wanting to know what’s happening, why this is happening for them, if they’re hungry, if they are feeling afraid they’re not going to have a cookie. If you are worried, if you are feeling that rising, ooh, this feels uncomfortable for me, check in with them. See how they’re feeling. That’s a really important thing that we miss a lot in this. We really want to give some space to that and really just encourage us to talk to them about what’s happening, how they are.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you for all of this advice and perspective. It’s so important. I think it’s particularly important when people are just starting out so they can nip it in the bud. The vast majority of people are already in complex relationships with their own food and their children and trying to do their very, very best. I think it’s worth noting there is no such thing as being a perfect parent when it comes to food. There’s always room for empathy for yourself and for your kids and open-mindedness and making space for how to raise an intuitive eater and neutralizing food. You haven’t messed up your kids. If you’re listening, it’s going to be okay.

Sumner: It’s such an important message. We’re all learning here. We’re all doing our best. We know how hard it is to parent. Something we didn’t say is that this is never a parent’s fault. We live inside of this system and culture that has taught us to do all of these things automatically. Thanks for mentioning that.

Zibby: Thanks to both of you so much, Sumner and Amee, for coming on and discussing your book and helping so many people. It’s really wonderful.

Sumner: Thank you, Zibby.

Amee: Thank you for having us.

Zibby: Next time, I will not have you over for cake. I’ll have you over for something else. Take care. Buh-bye.

Sumner: Thank you very much.

Amee: Thanks. Bye.

Sumner: Bye.

Sumner Brooks & Amee Severson, HOW TO RAISE AN INTUITIVE EATER

HOW TO RAISE AN INTUITIVE EATER by Sumner Brooks & Amee Severson

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