How to adopt a restricted diet without feeling so restricted.
by Clare Marcangelo
Currently there seems to be so many new diets and ways of eating available, clogging up the internet and social media and popping up all over cafe menus. This emergence is due to many factors, such as a new awareness of the potential effects of foods on gut health, allergies and intolerances and inclusiveness of religious and cultural eating. We may choose to embrace these new options, or shy away from them and stay within our eating comfort zone. But what happens when our child is forced out of this comfort zone?
There are many reasons that children may have to change their diet to improve their health and wellbeing. It may be due to a newly diagnosed allergy or intolerance, or a diet protocol suggested to aid with repairing digestive health, or to improve energy, focus, and even mood.
Coming to grips with these potential new changes can be challenging for adults, but when it is our children, these diet changes need to happen for, it can be extremely overwhelming.
Fortunately, there are some strategies that can make this transition far easier.
Firstly, educate yourself. It is true what they say, knowledge is power. You don’t have to become an expert by any means, but without knowing the general mechanisms of your child’s new diet and how it should help them, it can be impossible to convince them of the benefits. Or convince well-meaning family members or school parents who question the “necessity “of this new way. Additionally, it can be hard on yourself as a carer to continue to spend money on or prepare foods that you don’t truly understand. Using resources available, or the guidance of a Paediatric Nutritionist or Dietitian can help you feel empowered enough to make the leap and stay consistent.
Secondly, take it slow. If there is an allergy or intolerance, obviously we need to remove that allergen entirely from the diet entirely (at the guidance of your diagnosing practitioner), however when it is a new diet being adopted, changing one or two things each week may feel more workable.
It may feel tempting to throw all the other foods in the bin and have a complete overhaul, but even if you manage not to overwhelm yourself doing this, you may cause anxiety or resentment in other household members. Children need to feel that they have control of their own worlds so to have all their favourite treats disappear at once will only reduce potential compliance. And a diet that your child refuses to adopt, is a diet that is not going to work.
In many cases there really may be no option for your child to reject the new diet, so its crucial we allow for strategies that help acceptance from the minute we start it.
I find that children strongly dislike having their familiar foods “taken”, so wherever possible, aim to merely alter their foods to be friendly to their new restrictions. For example, although a child who needs to remove gluten and currently enjoys processed, store bought chicken nuggets, would clearly benefit far more from something like some homemade rice flour chicken tenders. However this change may be far too much for them. In these cases, I suggest using “gateway” foods swap for store bought gluten free nuggets at first. Long term, we would love to see this child move away from this processed food, but first we may need to show them that gluten free isn’t as different as they’d expected. They can come on board and continue to feel safe in their world.
Of course slower going approach this helps carers too – if we don’t have to all of a sudden start cooking brand new things from scratch we can of course also ease ourselves into this new protocol without overwhelm or resentment. The families who feel resentment towards the diet will tend to lapse, then not reap the benefits, or see much progress and thus often give up entirely.
If we can start out with a calm perspective, not taking on aspects that we can’t honestly expect to maintain, we can slowly embrace this new way of eating, modelling a positive attitude to our children. Once we start to see a positive difference or hear our child remark that this new food is “so yummy”, we can start to relax and know that this is absolutely for the best, and we are truly helping our child begin to thrive.
Clare Marcangelo is a local registered Children’s Nutritionist and former Early Childhood practitioner who specialises in children’s health. As a mum herself, she knows how hard it can be to make even the smallest of changes to a family diet.