Episode 56: Nurturing Healthy Relationships with Food with Olivia Brooks
In this week’s episode of Healthy Habits Happy Homes, we are joined by Olivia Brooks, a Certified Fitness Instructor and Registered Dietitian specializing in pediatric/family nutrition, sports nutrition, and eating disorders. Olivia shares tips on how parents can promote mindful eating in children, foster a positive body image, and create shared meals that are enjoyable experiences, encouraging open conversations about food and preferences. Check out Olivia’s page here at @pocketfulofhealth.
Healthy Habits, Happy Homes Podcast
Season 6, Episode 2
Guest: Olivia Brooks
October 20, 2023
Marciane Any 0:04
Hello. Welcome to The Healthy Habits Happy Homes podcast hosted by the Guelph Family Health Study.
Tamara Petresin 0:14
If you’re interested in the most recent research and helpful tips for healthy, balanced living for you and your family, then this podcast is for you. In each episode, we will bring you topics that are important to your growing family and guests who will share their expertise and experience with you.
Marciane Any 0:30
Our quick tips will help your family build healthy habits for a happy home.
Tamara Petresin 0:42
Welcome back to The Healthy Habits Happy Homes podcast. I’m Tamara…
Marciane Any 0:46
And, I’m Marciane.
Tamara Petresin 0:48
And, today we’re excited to have Olivia Brooks join us. Olivia is a registered dietitian and certified fitness instructor. She completed two undergraduate degrees in science and her master’s of science in food and nutrition at the University of Western Ontario. She currently works as a community-based dietitian and has a focus in the areas of paediatric and family nutrition, sports nutrition, and disordered eating and eating disorders. In her spare time, Olivia loves to be active and grew up playing a variety of sports, her favourites being basketball and soccer. Thanks so much for being here today, Olivia,
Olivia Brooks 1:19
Thank you so much for having me.
Tamara Petresin 1:21
Wonderful. Well, to get us started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself your current role and how your education and experiences led you to where you are now?
Olivia Brooks 1:28
Yeah, of course. So, like Tamara already mentioned, my name is Olivia Brooks, or still Olivia McAllister to a lot of my family and friends who knew me pre-married days. But, I’m currently working as a community-based Registered Dietitian. I spent 11 years post secondary at Western, again, doing those two undergraduate degrees and my masters. My undergraduate degrees were a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Science in food nutrition. And my masters, a Masters of Science in Food Nutrition. During my undergrad and graduate student careers, I volunteered and worked for a wide variety of programs in places including children’s centre’s and schools, long term care homes, private practice, all with that underlying focus in health care while I tried to figure out, you know, my postgraduate life. I always knew I wanted to be in a profession that gave back to other, and while I definitely did not take the most direct route to becoming a dietitian, hence the 11 years post secondary, I definitely have no regrets in taking my time to figure out where I wanted to end up in health care. Fun fact, you can also find me on Instagram under the handle “Pocket Full of Health” if you enjoy what you hear today and want to, you know, stay involved and in touch with the food nutrition on social media.
Marciane Any 2:43
That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing about yourself. We’re really excited to have this conversation with you. You have such a wealth of knowledge and experience, it sounds like already, that we’re really excited to delve into.
Olivia Brooks 2:55
Thank you. I’m very excited to share what I know with the public.
Marciane Any 3:00
Well, the first question I have for you is: food plays a role in family life and fostering a healthy relationship with it can be a challenge. Can you explain why establishing a positive relationship with food is particularly important for families with children?
Olivia Brooks 3:16
Yeah, of course, that’s an excellent question. So, as we probably know, from our own childhood, childhood experiences can create these sorts of core memories, beliefs and values that we carry into our adulthood. And, through research, we’ve really learned about how we talk, not only about food and nutrition, but also our bodies around little ears or tiny humans can have a really long lasting impact on their own relationship with those things.
Tamara Petresin 3:46
Yeah, definitely. We actually were talking about, kind of, core memories on our previous podcast episode about school lunches, and Marciane and I were sharing about how we remember, just like eating lunch, like in the cafeteria or on the gym floor, in my case. And, just like having those early experiences when we were younger, they’re, like, these core memories that are formed. So, it’s super important to, kind of, think back to how those things actually do influence a child as they get older, especially the way that we talk about our bodies and things related to food, as well. And, of course, parents want the best for their children. So, how can families strike a balance between providing nutritious options and allowing their children to develop a healthy autonomy in connection with the food that they eat?
Olivia Brooks 4:24
Of course, you know, we’re always, you know, trying to do the best and learn the most and figure out, you know, what can we do? So, one of my, honestly, top tips, or one of the most important things I think parents can do is to disconnect the language of good and bad from food. So, absolutely, there are foods that are objectively more nutritious than others, but this doesn’t necessarily make them “good foods.” So goodness and badness are inherently linked to morality, and the food choices we make have really nothing to do with our morals or who we are as people, so, someone isn’t a bad person because they chose to have pizza and fries for dinner. And, someone isn’t necessarily a good person because they had a salad with grilled chicken. We know nothing about these people based on the food choices that they, you know, make in one moment. So, that’s one of my, you know, favourite tips for parents and just, you know, any adult in general. Other things I try to do is I’ll encourage parents to focus on a concept that I like to refer to as “nutrition by addition.” So, what this means is we want to focus on adding, you know, a variety of some of those more objectively nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, meats, whole grains, alongside, so, with, that doesn’t have to be separate from those more, you know, fun or play foods. I’ll also suggest that parents encourage children to reflect on their hunger and fullness by helping them get in tune with those physiological hunger and fullness cues. So, if you’re kind of wondering how to do this, you can do just, like honestly, a quick Google search for hunger and fullness scale for kids. And, it gives you, it can give you like a nice depiction of this concept. So, one that I’ve found recently is like a pea pod. So, on one end, there’s a one and the one is to describe when someone’s very, very hungry, and the 10 is, like, “I’m super stuffed.” So, this hunger and fullness scale was developed by experts in the intuitive eating field. Honestly, something else that I’ll do on the flip side, is also suggest that parents try to avoid adding pressure at meal and snack times, and try really hard to not use food as a reward or even a punishment. So, pressure at mealtimes is often met with resistance from the kiddos. And encouraging that extra two bites or to be in the “clean plate club,” can potentially result in children eating beyond their fullness, which is something that you know, we’ve probably experienced and know that it isn’t super comfortable. And, then, food being used as a reward or a punishment can put certain foods into ranked categories. So, thinking back to that, like, good versus bad. And, that’s an idea we don’t really want to nourish for the long run. Parents can also take a bit of time to reflect on their own nutrition beliefs and messages that they grew up with. And, recognize whether these messages have helped or hindered with their own relationship with food and their bodies. And, if they are projecting any of these, you know, less helpful beliefs onto their kiddos.
Marciane Any 7:31
Thank you so much. That was really insightful and you shared a lot of helpful tips. I feel like something that really resonated with me was, you know, the language that can sometimes we used around food like “good and bad foods.” And, just even the reminder that food doesn’t really have anything to do with morality. And, I think growing up those are some of the things that I had to unlearn — you speaking on that, I think, was very helpful. And, even the nutrition by addition is really cool. There’s so much that we can add to our plates, you know, like, you can have the pizza and then maybe add some veggies, things like that. That just really resonated with me. And, I think, you know, of course, for parents, there has to be a lot of grace there. I feel like it might not be on purpose that certain messages are portrayed. But, definitely, it is helpful to, kind of, move away from that kind of language just from a daughter’s perspective, because it is something that needed to be unlearned. And, now, with it being unlearned, I’ve had a very better relationship with food and being focused on it nourishing versus good or bad.
Tamara Petresin 8:42
Definitely, yeah, I agree, Marciane, too, like, that language of good and bad, I feel like so often in nutrition, like, everything is kind of seen as like black and white. So, it’s either good or it’s bad and, like, trying to, kind of, work towards disconnecting food and that morality piece, like Olivia was talking about, is so important. So, I’m just wondering, too, Olivia, if there’s any, like, recommendations or tips you have on how to start that process of disconnecting that language of good and bad around kids and in general.
Olivia Brooks 9:11
Yeah, that’s such a good question. Honestly, just getting started with it. So, you know, if it’s already language that you’ve been using, try to start correcting yourself if you can, so if you, you know, recognize, “oh, I normally call, you know, our carrots and peas, good foods and we, you know, are normally calling our pizza and chips, bad foods,” you know, recognize and correct that language right in front of them, to help them see and, kind of, unlearn that we don’t have to use those words. You can, you know, depending on the age of the child, explain why you’re making the transition. If you think it’s something that they’ll understand. Just dive right into it. Honestly, recognize that this is something that you probably learned and grew up with and that’s okay, you know, we’re always learning and adapting Just get started. Catch yourself and, and make the correction. So, you can use, you know, words like “nourishing,” “play foods,” those kinds of words are a little bit more useful and not linked to morality as much as, you know, “good versus bad.”
Tamara Petresin 10:17
Yeah, that’s a really great tip, too. And, even what you were saying earlier, too, about just, like, reflecting on your own, like, nutrition beliefs and the messages and stuff like that. And, I think, like, sitting down, too, like, that’s probably a big part of it is, like, sitting down and actually thinking, like, am I projecting these beliefs that, you know, I may have heard as a child, and things like that. And, like you said, nobody’s perfect, right? Like, we all have things that we heard as children that have, like, impacted us and to see if we carry it forward. But, it’s a good place to start as in that reflection, and then just stopping it in its tracks, almost, if you do notice yourself saying those types of things and tying food to morality. And, like you mentioned to there are so many other adjectives that we can use, like “nourishing,” you know, like, “energy giving,” even if it’s about a certain food to, like, carrots, especially with the younger kiddos. You can be like, “Oh, it’s great for our vision, and like it helps us see well,” and things like that, too. So, that’s really helpful. Thank you for sharing that.
Olivia Brooks 11:06
You’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed that tip.
Marciane Any 11:09
Definitely. And, there’s so many outside influences, as well, that can impact, like, our nutrition or food beliefs. And, children are often exposed to various influences that shape their perception of food, from media to peers. What strategies can parents employ to create an environment at home that promotes mindful eating and minimizes the impact of external pressures?
Olivia Brooks 11:35
Well, that’s such a tough one. And, you know, you say, sending the kids out into the world hoping for the best but, of course, you know, we can’t erase everything that’s being shared with our children outside the home. But, a few things you can do. One, is honestly encouraging your children to ask questions about food and nutrition and meet these questions with listening, empathetic and really non-judgmental ears, making sure they, you know, feel like they’re in a safe place to bring these things up. You know, you wouldn’t want to go talk to somebody who is going to judge you. So, you can be that source of non-judgement for your kids. And, honestly, if they start asking you questions, you know, about nutrition that you don’t have answers to, that’s Okay. That’s where, you know, dieticians and nutrition experts can be really helpful resources, as well. Parents can also practice some of the tips that I previously offered: so not using food as a reward. And, you might be thinking, you know, what can I use instead, you can use non-food based things if you would like. So, maybe there’s a sticker chart that they add to, maybe it’s five extra minutes of play time, just trying not to, again, put foods on pedestals as rewards. We can help children learn about their own hunger and fullness cues. Then, another thing parents can try to do is practice something called the “Division Of Responsibility.” So the Division Of Responsibility, or DOR, was actually developed by a dietician named Ellyn Satter and it encourages both parents and children to be involved in the feeding process. So, for more details, definitely go check out Ellyn Satter Institute online, she’s got tons of information and resources on there. But, basically, in short, parents can decide what food is available and when it’s available. And, children can decide how much of that food they’re going to eat at that meal or snack. So, this might not be the perfect strategy for all children. But, it can be a really great starting point to help create some structure and autonomy for the kids.
Marciane Any 13:38
Thank you so much, Olivia, that was really helpful. Like, you brought up some really helpful tips. I have been hearing often from some parents recently about food as a reward and wanting to, kind of, unlearn that, especially when it’s something that, even if it’s not practice in the home, it can be seen a lot outside. You know, if certain classes do well, there’s a pizza party, or you win a game, you go for ice cream, things like that, which isn’t inherently, you know, bad. But, food as a reward can sometimes be something that is seen often in and out of the home. So, do you have any practical tips about how to move away from that and then learn some of those practices and use those other rewards that you mentioned?
Olivia Brooks 14:28
Thanks, Marciane. That was a great question. And, you know, it is really hard to control everything outside the home, so I suggest just doing your best, so use non-food based rewards when you are at home. And, when you’re also at home, maintaining that, you know, food neutrality and offering all types of foods both nourishing and play that kids will, you know, by doing this, children will feel like, you know, there’s a little bit more control when they’re offered the play foods in alternative settings. So, sometimes the fear is when they’re offered ice cream for a reward for winning their soccer game that they’re gonna want to have, you know, 25 scoops and just eat the whole thing as fast as they can. If it’s a food that’s offered often and treated neutrally, it’s not as exciting or as thrilling. There also is some emerging research to support using non-food items as rewards, which is also starting to influence policies in Canada. So, maybe we’ll eventually get to the point where we aren’t using ice cream as a reward or using pizza as a reward. The other thing you can do, as well, is just keep that communication open with the kids. And, if you feel comfortable, you could always chat with the school or with your child’s teacher about alternative reward options. So, maybe, instead of the pizza party, it’s a sprinkler party, and they set up some sprinklers on the school grounds, and they can run through them. Or, if that’s a little bit too much of a mess, maybe it’s, you know, an extra game of kickball or something like that, things that just aren’t tied to food. You can provide some of those alternative option ideas, if that’s something you’re comfortable with, too. But, again, just remember, it’s okay if you can’t control everything outside of the home. That would be a big ask of us.
Tamara Petresin 16:15
Yeah, that’s so true. I mean, the reality is, is we can’t control what goes on outside of the home. And, you know, part of raising independent kids, you know, with autonomy is, kind of, them going through these experiences, too, and seeing how things are and being able to encounter those situations and deal with them. Right? And, especially the point you made to about how, like, having some of those foods regularly, like those fun or play foods, it really just like almost takes away a bit of that power. It’s not as big of a thriller, it’s not as important, it takes away some of that power, which unfortunately, I think, because food has been used as a reward so much, a lot of these foods have — and not just over children, too, right, over adults, as well. So, a lot of really good things to think about there and to, maybe, think about how they influence our eating and our behaviours. With that being said, too, family meals are a time for bonding and connection. So, how can parents make these shared meals enjoyable experiences that encourage open conversations about food and preferences?
Olivia Brooks 17:13
Of course, so, like we’ve talked about honestly already, keeping that open communication, safe communication is really important. So, continuing to verbally express to the kiddos, that they are allowed to ask about food and food preferences; you can encourage them to be part of the preparation shopping cooking experience. Ask them to help decide, you know, what goes on the menu for the week, include all their favourite foods regularly. And, when time allows for it, try to take them to the grocery store to show them food and show them more food options that are available. If you’re working to try and expand the palate of one or more of your children, you can encourage them to explore the sensations of the food, as well, versus the “one bite and I’ll give you know, ice cream; two bites and you can have, you know, a pizza party,” trying to avoid that. But, rather doing that sensation exploration. So, what does this food look like? Does it look like anything else you recognize? What does it smell like? What does it feel like? If you touch it with your fingers, does it feel crunchy? Does it feel smooth? What does this food smell like? Can you try to describe that to me? And, making sure that you offer these less familiar food items more than once. It can actually take 15 to 20 tries for a child to accept a new food. And, if you’re finding that the topic of food becomes stressful at dinner time, the meal is getting stressful because maybe someone isn’t eating or someone’s in a really grumpy mood, try to keep the conversation away from food or the meal itself. So, ask family members how their day was. Ask them what they’re looking forward to, maybe their favourite sport or their favourite movie, their favourite artist. For younger children, you could ask, you know, whats their favourite colour or animal, what they want to be when they grow up, or everyone in the room can start, you know, sharing their favourite jokes, but just really setting up that nice, you know, mealtime relaxed conversation can be a really great way to keep the mealtime relaxed and enjoyable for everybody at the table, knowing that you’re not headed into a really stressful conversation.
Marciane Any 19:30
Wow, those are really helpful tips. It’s just so crazy. We mentioned this in the last episode about just how food is so central to so many things. You can start practicing those safe spaces and open communication around these topics and then it just spills into other you know topics that parent and children can have together. I especially loved what you talked about, like, talking through and having the child, like, enjoy the sensations of the food. That is so cool. Like, just taking that time to be more mindful and, you know, enjoy the food. It makes me think about, I actually had this experience with a family member trying watermelon for the first times when I was younger. I just remember us, like, being outside and really, like, taking in that cool, refreshing fruit. And, it became, like, one of my favourite fruits growing up. But just taking that time to really enjoy it in a different way, really stuck. And, it’s really cool. I just, I thought that was really interesting. I never really thought about that till you say it. And, it brought back a core memory. So, thank you for all of those tips.
Olivia Brooks 20:43
You’re welcome. I love that we’ve circled back to core memories. It’s so funny how something, you know, that seems so seemingly simple can be so valuable. And so, leaves such a lasting impression on somebody.
Tamara Petresin 20:56
Yeah, that’s so true. It is all about the core memories. But, even what you were talking about too, like, at the dinner table, there are so many other things to talk about other than food, like, we don’t have to have that, like, pressure of, like, staring at everyone’s plates and paying attention to who’s eating what and how much of it and stuff like that. Like, there are so many other conversations that can be had when we’re sitting down together. So, I just thought that was really cool that you made a point to include that, as well.
Olivia Brooks 21:20
Thank you. Yeah, absolutely. And honestly, something that has been released recently, sort of recently in 2019, when the new food guide came out, was just that mealtime and family meals are really important to helping develop that, you know, healthy, strong relationship with food too. Eating family meals can help us become more mindful eaters, as well. We’re working on, you know, slowing down eating rather than just plowing through the meal as quick as we can to get on to the next thing. That family mealtime can be really valuable for a lot of reasons.
Tamara Petresin 21:52
Yeah, that’s so true. It is just, like, it’s so much more than food at the end of the day, like, that connection. And, that helps nurture to, like, emotional development and all of that, as well. So, it’s just really important to think about it beyond the food too, sometimes.
Olivia Brooks 22:05
Exactly. There’s so much more to gain from, you know, eating then just the food.
Tamara Petresin 22:13
Marciane Any 22:14
Exactly. I’m loving this conversation. But, another aspect, I feel like, you know, something when we’re speaking about these topics, I feel like we can’t have this conversation without speaking about body image. And, so body image concern can arise at a young age due to societal influences. What can parents do to foster a positive body image in their children?
Olivia Brooks 22:41
Ah yes, this is probably the million dollar question on the podcast today. Honestly, one of the best things that parents can do, and that can feel really challenging at times, I absolutely recognize that, is set the example. So, really avoiding diet talk or speaking negatively about your body or anyone’s body for that matter, around children. So, remember that those little ears work very well and can pick up on things you might not even realize that they’re listening to. So, just really keep that negative conversation around bodies, dieting, away from the household. Celebrate what bodies can do instead. So, our eyes help us see; our legs help us walk. So, just, you know, honing in on what bodies can do and celebrating that accomplishment that they’re able to provide for us. And, then, encourage them to stay off social media until they can better understand that there is such a wide, wide variety of messages that are coming on those platforms. If they’re already on social media, take you know, 15, 20 minutes to go through their feed and try to filter out, you know, messages that are less helpful, maybe more harmful. But, as best you can try to keep them off the social media when you can. I know that might be impossible for a teenager, but, you know, do a little refresher of their page when you can, again, keeping that open, honest conversation, knowing that they’re in a safe place with you. Just really try to be the example at home. It’s okay if, you know, you are struggling, you have your own struggle with that. That’s okay, that’s totally normal, totally allowed. But, just be careful where you talk about those struggles, so, that those little ears aren’t picking up on it.
Marciane Any 24:26
That is all so true. Body image is, like, something, I think, very personal to everyone but, knowing in my life, it’s something I’ve had to go through a lot of healing for and I think just setting the example is so important. The part that you talked about celebrating what bodies can do is so powerful because our bodies can do so much and do so much at any size. You know, like working in the clinical setting and learning about anatomy and physiology. It’s just so crazy. The whole like we’re alive and all the things our bodies can do. And, being able to celebrate that, instead of being so focused on size is something that was very healing to me and something I wish I had more of growing up. I feel like you know, it could have just done so much wonders for kids to grow up hearing those messages. And, social media, as well. I’m glad that social media was out when I was a little older, because I can’t imagine now growing up when you have like, TikTok in your hands as a child. And, there’s a lot of messages out there that are very negative around body image, comparing your bodies to others, things like that. And, so I think, you know, just being careful about what kids are exposed to is so, so important, because you’re right, their little ears are hearing so much, their little eyes are observing so much, they’re learning about not only their bodies and what it can do, but how to think about their body. And, so, modelling positivity around that topic is so so important. Because, you know, as you get older people always talk about how, like, if you don’t address something, it doesn’t really go away. So, it would be best to just start off with positive messaging about their body so that when they get older, they don’t have to, like, heal from that. So, just thank you for those tips. To me, makes me really want to take seriously when I have my own kids to set the example and really be careful about the language I’m using around them.
Olivia Brooks 26:36
You’re so welcome. I’m so glad that message resonated with you. And I know it’s something really hard, but takes an unlearning, like we’ve talked about before. But, it is possible and we can help set a new precedent for these next generations. Definitely.
Tamara Petresin 26:55
Yeah, that’s so true. There is definitely a lot to be said, too, about like exposure in comparison, especially with social media, because it’s just so easily accessible these days. So, it’s just really important to take those steps that you talked about to, you know, if they’re on social media already, going through those feeds, filtering out things that are not helpful. And, just really thinking about all the different messages that are out there and how helpful they are for kids or teenagers even to be seeing and if they need to be interacting with that type of content, because it certainly can influence people for a long time, right. And, those kinds of things stick with us. So, it’s really important to be very intentionally reflective about all of those things. So, to close out the podcast, we like to give families three take home tips. So, what are three take home tips that you can share with our listeners to help support them with healthy relationships with food?
Olivia Brooks 27:43
Yes, I love a good takeaway message, you know, what is the main purpose of all of this. So, number one, keep language around food and neutral. So, our morality is never linked to our food choices. What goes into the decision somebody makes about food is so multifaceted and no one deserves to be judged for a snapshot in time. So, neutral food language. Number two is to be the example for your children. So, try new foods with them; talk about bodies in a positive light. Celebrate the little things bodies can do for us every day and be a listening ear for their questions or concerns. You can be their safe place. And, finally have the children and kiddos be an active participant in the food experience from the prepping and shopping to the cooking and eating. This can help them feel like they have a sense of responsibility.
Marciane Any 28:38
I love that. Thank you so much for all of those tips. And, even just reiterating that is so true, you can’t judge someone on a snapshot of their life. You have no idea what they’re going through, or even the successes that they’ve had, you know, and so it’s very hard to just look at someone and be, like, “They’re healthy or they’re unhealthy.” We don’t know. So, thank you so much for all of those tips and really excited to just continue to ponder on this conversation.
Olivia Brooks 29:10
You’re so welcome. You know what could be considered healthy for one person might be less healthy for another person. But, we don’t know that just by looking at the food itself. We don’t know the whole story behind that. So, we want to try to keep it neutral and judgment free.
Marciane Any 29:28
Thank you, Olivia, for sharing your expertise on nurturing healthy relationships with food within families. Your insights will undoubtably resonate with our listeners and provide them with practical guidance to create a positive environment for their children.
Olivia Brooks 29:43
Thank you guys so much for having me on. It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you guys and I can’t wait to hear this all come together.
Tamara Petresin 29:51
And, remember if you want to keep up to date with Olivia, follow her on Instagram at “Pocketful of Health,” and to our audience, please remember that building healthy relationships with food is an ongoing journey that fosters not just physical well being but emotional connection, as well. Stay tuned for our next episode.