“Oh NO, Mommy is on a Diet Again…” How [not] to Talk to Your Children About Food, Fitness, and Health

People often ask me what my daughter thinks of my bodybuilding. And often—not always, but often—what they really want to know is how I talk to her about what I’m doing.  With two degrees [well, almost] in Women’s Studies and a reputation for being a feminist who hates Barbie and destructive body ideals, I agree that I come off as a bit of a conundrum.  How can I talk about bodies in the media, and then stand on stage half naked?  How can I talk about loving and embracing our bodies, and then go on extreme diets for months at a time?  And then to do it all in front of my daughter, who is learning half of what she knows by watching me?


I am happy to talk about this, because of course health, fitness, and nutrition are all very big topics in my house. My daughter has grown up in the gym.  Literally.  Powerlifting gyms, fighting gyms, commercial gyms—she has seen it all and learned something new at each one.  Now that she is old enough to make choices, she participates in boxing and jiu jitsu herself.  In our home, going to the gym is as much a part of our life as eating, sleeping, and going to school/work.  But just as important as knowing how and when to work out is knowing how and when to rest, and that is the difference between a healthy gym habit and a forced obsession.

Health is another big topic in my house, and this is much more difficult than you may think.  How does one approach such a broad term that is defined differently by every subculture?  Everywhere you go in America, including elementary schools, there is some misinformed idiot preaching about “health.”  A lot of my job as a parent is to not only help her conceptualize health, but also to help her understand how to define it herself so that she can stand up against the junk they preach at school.   One of my goals is to prevent her from equating “healthy” with “thin.”  Another is to prevent the anxieties that many women experience with food.

And what about nutrition?  How do we talk to our children about dieting, when everywhere they go they hear about it?  You must think I talk about dieting a lot because I do it a lot—but the truth is, I NEVER use that word to describe what I’m doing.  I have spent years teaching my daughter about moderation, and now I have a child who will enjoy a piece of cake when it’s time to enjoy a piece of cake, but who will stop when she feels like she needs to stop, at her own discretion.  There is no food guilt in my household.  No, “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” no equating cake with getting fat, no equating fat with unhealthy.

There are many times when my goal requires me to eat or not eat certain foods, and I do demonstrate this in front of my daughter.  But for the most part, I try to keep things normal for her.  She eats fish and chicken, loves broccoli and asparagus, and on nights I don’t eat starches she just enjoys them without me and doesn’t notice that I don’t have any rice on my plate.  I still take her out to lunch (and adapt in the ways I described in my last post) or we have picnics at the park so that I can bring my food.  Sweets, such as ice cream, have become a joke in our house.  Isabella understands that I’m CHOOSING not to eat them for a little while, and she knows that I will eat them again soon.  So they love to team up and make fun of me by exaggerating how good the ice cream is…haha!

And, just to be sure she understands that I’m CHOOSING not to eat some things for a small amount of time, and to reinforce that it’s ok to eat them, we have a “crazy meal” once a week.  For me, it’s a refeed that is necessary for several weeks during my prep.  But by involving her, I show her that it’s ok, that Mommy isn’t doing anything too extreme, and that there is a TIME to eat everything.  I never use language of deprivation—I never say “I CAN’T” eat something.  I always say that if I want to reach my goal, then this isn’t the right time for some things.

Based on my own experience as a competitive athlete with a child, here are my tips for talking to children about health, fitness, and nutrition:

  1. Never use the word DIET.  You don’t have to be competing in bodybuilding to want to change your nutrition to produce desired changes in your body; if you’re thinking about making changes to what you eat, don’t be the parent whose kids think, “oh no, mommy is on a diet again.  I guess we have to eat broccoli now…”  Make it a seamless transition so that being healthy doesn’t appear to be something temporary.
  2. Don’t think of foods as “bad” or “good.”  Think of them as having different values.  Some you eat more, some you eat more moderately.  This will prevent you from using the language of food anxiety around your children.
  3. Never say you CAN’T eat something.  The truth is, you can.  You’re choosing not to.
  4. Introduce them to the processed foods discussion: talk to them about chemicals and why you wouldn’t want to eat them.   Talk to them about the difference between fast food and the food you make at home.
  5. Listen to their interests and reinforce them!  My daughter wanted broccoli last night, but my nutrition plan called for spinach.  Does it really matter?  By making broccoli I reinforced her good choice and interest in vegetables.
  6. Be a team, and make it an adventure!  Everything I do, I invite my daughter to be on my team.  I involve her in some way so that she feels included and understands what’s going on.  If you are starting a new nutrition or fitness regimine, bring your child with you on the journey.  Explain why you are doing it, and invite him or her to “help” you.  This helps them to understand what you’re doing, makes them feel closer to you (instead of driving you apart, as dieting often can do), and instills good values.
  7. Invite children to enjoy vegetables: involve them in the process.  Let them help you choose them, clean them, and cut them up.  I often let my daughter choose from three similar options, such as broccoli, spinach, or asparagus.  She loves helping me break up broccoli into bits, peeling carrots, or de-stemming collard greens.
  8. Allow children to make choices—but be there to provide guidance from time to time. But sometimes I give her the opportunity to choose between a healthy snack and a not-so-healthy snack.  Sometimes she chooses the healthy snack and enjoys the reward of feeling good about her choice.  Other times, she just wants the damn cookie—and that’s ok too.   I trust her to make a good choice—but best of all, she trusts herself.  And I think that’s key in avoiding food anxiety and food guilt.
  9. Make seamless transitions.  Isabella and I have a few rituals that often involve little treats.   For instance, every time we go to a particular playground on a hot day, we stop at Sonic for a cold treat.  Giving that up because of my nutritional restrictions would only make her sad and cause her to dislike having a mommy who competes.  So we still go, but I get a Diet Coke with sugar free cherry flavoring.  It feels like a treat when you haven’t had anything sweet in a while, and she doesn’t realize I’m not enjoying the same thing she has.

6 Food Preparation Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle in a Food-Centered Culture

People often ask me what I eat.  There really is no short answer.  Instead, I have to explain that what I eat depends on what I’m doing.  It’s important to me to point this out because often people ask because what they really want is an example of what they should be eating.  And unless you’re dieting down to single digit bodyfat for a bodybuilding show, you should not be eating what I’m eating.  Or unless you are running and hiking triple digit mileage every month, you should not be eating what I’m eating.  Or unless you are a 5’1 mesomorph…ok, you get the point.  We all have different needs.

There are, however, a few things that I do on a competition diet that you can use.  This week I took a look at some of my habits and jotted them down.  I will now pass them on and call them “tips.”  I love blogging!

Tip #1: Don't get mad when you go to the store for yogurt and your significant other requests, as mine did, TWO COOKIES SANDWICHED AROUND A MOUND OF FROSTING AND DIPPED IN CHOCOLATE. It's too soon for a meltdown, so he's lucky...

  1. Invest in tupperware!  I love BPA free gladware.  It’s cheap, it’s light, it’s washable, and if it gets left in the fridge or in my cooler for too long….it’s also disposable.  It comes with me everywhere I go—I promise that if you run into me anywhere, I will probably have one in my purse!
  2. Pick one day a week to plan and prepare food for the upcoming week.  Use this time to make sure you have all of the ingredients for the dinners you plan to make, and make ahead any meals that you can.  Today I will cook 2.5 lbs of chicken and  prepare 2.5 cups of quinoa, just for daytime meals.  To prepare for this week’s dinners, I will  soak beans and thaw fish.
  3. So it’s Sunday and you’ve made five days’ worth of chicken and quinoa, but you know it’s only going to last three days in the refrigerator…FREEZE what you won’t eat until Wednesday.  I work full time now and I won’t have time to cook lunches in the middle of the week.  This method is saving my contest prep so far!
  4. Going back to tip #1: bring your food with you!  Today my family wanted pizza for dinner.  Pizza is not on my contest prep diet…so I have a few choices: I can give in to the temptation and eat pizza, I can sit and wallow in my misery, or I can bring my chicken and sweet potato (that I know wasn’t cooked in butter or heavily salted) with me and order a spinach salad.  I went with the latter option.  You don’t have to be preparing for a contest to make this work for you.  Most people could stick to a diet easily if they lived alone and didn’t have any reason to eat out.  But the reality is that lunch with co-workers, dinner with the family, and other social get-togethers involving food are a part of American culture.
  5. Cook out!  As I mentioned above, food-centered social occasions are a part of our lives that can often feel out of our control.  However, we have more control than we realize.  Today it came up that some friends wanted to get together for dinner, but I’m smack in the middle on contest prep!  So I threw out the idea of a backyard barbeque—I can bring chicken and maintain control over what I eat without calling a lot of attention to myself.
  6. Have a plan!  So what happens when your weekly meals get interrupted by factors out of your control?  Your refigerator stops working and all of your food spoils, or someone springs a dinner meeting on you that you weren’t prepared for…things come up.  Always know your options and have them built in as backup plans.  For instance, my go-to option is sashimi.  Most places serve brown rice.  I have brought a food scale and a measuring cup with me, but by now I’ve learned to eye it pretty well.  Whenever someone invites me to an impromptu lunch that I can’t get out of and at which pulling a baggy of chicken from my purse is inappropriate, I opt for a sushi restaurant when I can.  When all else fails, I have called ahead and explained to managers that I have extreme food allergies to salt, butter, gluten, and dairy.  I don’t recommend this unless you’re in a serious pinch!  But the point is, there is ALWAYS a way, even if you have to get creative.

If all else fails, opt for coffee!

Recipe of the day:  Quinoa (Keen-Wah)

A lot of people don’t know about quinoa, and it seems like many who do are intimidated by it.  If this is you, I’m here to help.

tip #1:  it’s pronounced like  “keen-wah” or “kin-wah”

tip #2:  rinse it first!

tip #3:  don’t rinse it in an ordinary strainer!  Use a fine mesh strainer or a coffee filter.  Mother nature loved quinoa so much she protected it with saponins, a bitter-tasting chemical designed to protect it from insects.  So unless you don’t mind the bitter taste, I recommend rinsing!

My recipe isn’t much of a recipe.  It’s basic cooking instructions with my own quick-and-easy flavor.

1 cup quinoa
3 cups water
fresh garlic, to taste (about 2 cloves is good to me)
red pepper, green pepper, or a combination of both
salt and pepper to taste

Honestly, when it comes to the veggies I put in it, I just use whatever I have in the fridge, which is often the odds and ends left over at the end of the week–a carrot or two, half a pepper or two, sometimes some celery or bits of onion or broccoli.  Just throw them in the food processor for a quick chop.  You can’t mess this up.

Yummmm veggie mush...

Heat oil or Pam cooking spray; add garlic and chopped vegetables and cook for about one minute.  Add quinoa, salt, and pepper.  Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add water and bring to a boil.  Boil for about 6 minutes, then cover and cook on low for about ten minutes or until water is absorbed.

Headed for the Stage [Again]

I’ve decided to comepte again.  After two years off, I have decided that it’s time to go back.  I have mixed feelings about this, because there are some very good reasons why I chose not to compete for two years.  At the same time, I have some very good reasons for needing to go back.  So while this blog is absolutely not going to be my contest journal, I will likely be writing about my approach to contest prep.  To some extent, it will be an experiment.

So how does my package-free, sustainable vision meet with my bodybuilding lifestyle?  How do I reconcile my non-aesthetic ideology concerning health with my participation in an entirely aesthetic sport?  This is, ultimately, the experiment.  While I have some answers, there is a lot I’m unsure of.   There are tried-and-true methods to nutrition and training in bodybuilding that I’m going to have to part with.  For starters, the quantity of chicken consumed in one contest prep is not sustainable if I plan to eat local, sustainable chicken.  And, of course, there is the fact that bodybuilding is, by nature, an aesthetic sport and I have maintained that my idea of health and athleticism are not purely based on aesthetics.  While the first issue can be conquered with a knowledge of food and my body’s reaction to it, I am prepared for the struggle I will likely face over the second issue.

I want to use my knowledge of food and my body to approach this contest prep in a

There was a time when this photo was really embarrassing to me. I hated the way my traps look...

different way.  At my most resentful moment, I have attempted to starve away this muscle.  I have also tried to abandon it by neglecting protein and consuming large amounts of carbohydrates, which is basically the opposite of what any bodybuilder would want to do!  All of this, with no change in my muscular frame.  In the process of trying, I learned just how much my body can take.  I learned that pumping myself full of 150g of protein a day probably isn’t as necessary for my body as it might be for someone else’s, and that carbohydrates aren’t [exactly] as evil as I once assumed them to be.

I have tried to run it off, yoga it off (yep, I just made yoga a verb), stretch it away…to no
avail.  I have a muscular body type, and there is nothing I can do about it.  I can’t keep regarding it with such ambivalence!  I can, however, embrace it.  What I have come to realize is that while I’m in contest prep, it inspires and excites the people around me.  Not in the sense of “look what Sheena can do!” But perhaps in the sense of, “look what can be done!  What things might I be able to do?”  A bodybuilder in contest prep challenges everyone around her to wonder how they too can push themselves to be better.  They see what focus looks like, and they start to consider the goals that they want to reach.  They see possibility.

And here’s the precise moment that I start to worry: when I realize that the people around me equate “better” with “aesthetically better.”  And that is not the effect I want to have on people.  Part of the reason that I have not competed in two years is that I felt like I was contributing to the “fit=weight loss=better” monster that leads to body hatred.  And my participation in this sport is for the SOLE purpose of leading others to body acceptance.  Somehow, though, I have been misinterpreted in a way that I feel I cannot always undo.

Another reason that I have avoided the stage during this time is that I, too, become a victim of the “thin is better” monster.  There is no place more degrading, no place more fickle and vain, than backstage at a bodybuilding show.  The categories are set up in a way that is, in my opinion, degrading to female bodybuilders (For more of my opinion on this subject, see my Master’s Thesis….).  I got lost in it, and before I knew it the sport that made me feel so good began to make me feel very awful.  So I walked away.  And I’m glad I did.

People have called this "gross." I am proud of it!

But now, it’s time to go back.  It’s time to rediscover my love for my own muscular physique.  It’s time to test it, push it, and focus it.  It’s time to uplift the people around me who are STILL somehow inspired by something I haven’t done in two years.  It’s time to test my own ability to stand up against the pressure of a society that equates thinness with femininity.  I have to stand up to the monster, not just for myself but for the women (and men!) around me who are empowered when I do.