‘Almond mums’ are all over social media at the moment – but what are they and should we be worried?
The term first appeared back in 2013 after an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, in which supermodel Gigi Hadid told her mother Yolanda that she felt weak from eating “like, half an almond”. Yolanda then tells Gigi to “have a couple of almonds and chew them really well”.
As a general to a ten and 12-year-old, comments like this set off major alarm bells; I know that how we talk to our children about food and body image can have such an impact on how they view themselves and the eating habits they form.
Did you know that between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder? Most eating disorders develop in adolescence and the average age of onset for anorexia nervosa is 16-17 years old, according to The Priory Group.
below, Dr Sophie Mort, Clinical Psychologist & Mental Health Expert at Headspace tells HELLO! about the impact of ‘almond mums’ on children’s mental health, and what measures can be taken to prevent the cycle of bad food thoughts.
What is an ‘almond mum’?
An ‘almond mum’ is a term derived from a specific incident in a TV show where a mother encouraged her daughter to suppress her hunger cues by eating almonds, and generally refers to parents who promote strict dieting and weight control.
The impact of restrictive eating and hunger suppression on the mental health of children and teenagers can be significant, given that parents play a crucial role in shaping their children’s eating behaviors and attitudes toward food and body image.
What is the impact of ‘almond mums’ on mental health?
When we promote severe dietary restriction and tie self-worth to physical appearance, this may inadvertently foster the development of disordered eating behaviors, which can in turn lead to extreme dieting, binging, or anorexia nervosa.
Children may also develop body dissatisfaction and poor self-image, which can contribute to mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.
The constant feeling of one’s values being tied to their appearance can also lead to reduced self-esteem, which can affect their overall well-being and performance in other areas of life.
How parents shape children’s eating behaviors
Parents shape children’s eating behaviors through their own attitudes and behaviors related to food.
Children often imitate their parents’ eating habits and food choices, meaning a parent’s unhealthy relationship with food can be passed on. Similarly, parents who frequently discuss weight or dieting, use “fat” as an insult, or make negative comments about their own or others’ bodies can foster body dissatisfaction in their children.
Using food as a reward or punishment can create an unhealthy relationship with food, associating it with emotions rather than nutrition and satisfaction.
Side note: it isn’t only parents shaping children and teen’s eating behaviors. Peers, other influential adults, celebrities, influencers and the media did too, particularly during the teenage years. This is important to the state as parents may blame themselves, when actually, the influence can come from outside of the home.
Strategies to break the cycle if you are a parent:
1) Get aware of your personal eating attitudes and behaviors
It is easier to break the cycle of unhealthy eating habits being passed from generation to generation when parents tackle their own first.
Sometimes we don’t even know we are sending out mixed messages, but children tend to pick up on the moment where we say “beauty is on the inside” and in the next breath look in the mirror and say it yourself.
Mindful eating practices can be extremely helpful to raise your awareness around your eating beliefs and habits and will teach you to create a pause between your automatic thinking and knee jerk response so that you can choose how you would like to eat and treat your body going forwards.
If you don’t know where to start, I recommend trying: Headspace Mindful Eating course and their tips page called Tuning into how you’re eating.
2) Role modeling healthy attitudes
Focus on health rather than weight, drop labels such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (kids often don’t understand healthy/unhealthy either so explain why something is healthy/not, eg by saying instead: “This food helps keep your heart and muscles healthy, and your bones strong”), and don’t use food as a reward or punishment.
If you choose an apple over a different snack, instead of saying: “I’m having the apple as sweets will make you fat”, simply point out that you haven’t had enough fruit today. This sets an example for children and can contribute significantly to their development of healthy eating habits.
3) Foster a non-judgmental environment
Avoid making comments about one’s own or others’ bodies, dieting, or weight – instead focus on health and well-being rather than appearance.
Pay compliments that are based outside of physical appearance, eg instead of, “You look nice”, pick something that is unique to them eg “I love your curiosity,” or: “You’re so creative”.
4) Promote intuitive eating
Encouraging children to listen to their bodies and eat according to hunger and satiety cues helps them to develop a healthy relationship with food and prevents overeating, under-eating, or developing a disordered relationship with food.
When we have learned we should restrict food, or feel shameful about food, we can lose our ability to sense what our body needs and feels. We may lose the ability to notice feelings of hunger or satiation for example. When we engage in mindful eating, we can release these lost skills, and we can retrain our beliefs around food and what we can eat.
The mindful eating course on the Headspace app would be great to complete with your children or teens if you are worried about their eating.
5) Educate about nutrition
By teaching children about the nutritional aspects of food, they can make informed decisions and understand that all foods can be part of a balanced diet. If you don’t feel sure about nutrition, learn together. Make it fun. Eating should be enjoyable, so focus on what you and your family like to eat too.
6) Engage children in food preparation
Involving children in meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking can also help them to appreciate the process of preparing food and provide opportunities to learn about nutrition and balanced eating. It can also help them get to know what they like, don’t like and why. Empowering them to have a positive relationship with food going forward.
7) For parents of teens
Adolescence is the period where children start to ask, “Who am I?” If shamed for our body or eating habits during this period, this shame can become a core part of our identity going forwards.
Not only that, but if peers and the media are constantly talking about these topics, it will cement these frameworks of thinking even deeper into our minds.
Good news: many teens thrive when they are invited to discuss and debate what they have learned about, in order to foster opinions and beliefs that will empower them going forward.
8) Discuss what you see in the media and on TV
Being able to spot airbrushed images helps people of all ages mitigate the effects of the body image sold in the media. Look out for edited images together, and also discuss themes you notice in media sales tactics, eg the kinds of bodies shown in certain advertising.
Discussing unattainable beauty standards and the impact of this on global wellbeing often leads young people to feel this is unjust, to see if for what it is – a sales tactic that is not meant to help them but to make them part with their money – and this helps them detach from these beliefs and also feel a sense of pride in who they are already.
9) Discuss themes that arise around food and eating
Get them to find out about healthy eating, and debate with them about why it’s good for them to do this and what might get in the way of them doing this.
10) Offer a non-judgmental and supportive place to discuss concerns
This is important for all ages, but if it hasn’t come up before this it can be vital for teens who are ultra-sensitive to social pressures. Make sure they are able to express if there is peer pressure to eat a certain way and if they have concerns. Help support them to build the emotional resources they need to manage this.
By fostering a healthy relationship with food and body image, parents can play a significant role in promoting their children’s mental and physical health.
If parents or children are struggling with these issues, they should consider seeking professional help from a registered dietitian, psychologist, or other mental health professional.
For help and advice on eating disorders see beatatingdisorders.org.uk/