A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

A Diet by Any Other Name

How repackaging restrictive eating disguises its harmful effects

Many parents today would agree that putting a normal child on a weight-loss diet is now considered a Bad Idea. The public outcry against last year’s Vogue article on a seven-year-old's diet, which I wrote about at the time, bears that out. Public awareness of eating disorders, along with greater sensitivity to the social pressures that land particularly heavily on young girls, have largely removed childhood “dieting” as an option for all but the most extreme or medically necessary cases. Even many adults eschew the term “dieting,” perhaps because it seems faddish or old-fashioned, or even unhealthy. The image of women sitting around over coffee, smoking and comparing various trendy diets, sounds as dated as an episode of “Mad Men.” However, let's be clear: this is a semantic rather than an actual change; only the term has been put out to pasture, not the practice. Diets have been renamed: “cleanses,” “detoxes” and even sometimes “healthy eating” are the same restrictive practices that people who want to lose weight have always used. And the effect of this rebranding is significant, as it obscures much of dieting’s negative impact and makes its effects on children particularly insidious.

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So what is a diet? Technically, simply what an organism consumes. But try Googling the word, and this definition won’t be the first or even second thing that pops up. Starting in the late nineteenth century, “dieting” came to refer to the practice of restricting food, occasionally for a specific medical reason, but more often in order to lose weight. Not coincidentally, dieting came into vogue as the food supply in developed countries began to skyrocket. As cheaper, more refined foods became the norm for more people across the socio-economic spectrum, unwanted weight gain became a widespread issue for the first time. People ate more processed food, in larger quantities, for less money than ever; for the first time in human history, weighing too much suddenly overtook hunger or even starvation as the biggest problem with food in many populations.

Like many of the scientific advances of the twentieth century, from baby formula to DDT, improvements in food production had a dark side that wasn’t immediately apparent: steep rises in so-called “western” illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and various cancers began around the same time, as well as in eating-relating disorders such as obesity, anorexia and bulimia. Dieting proposed to be the equally “scientific” corrective to these problems. Yet redoubtable medical studies have concluded that and that not only do weight-loss diets fail most people, they actually can lead to weight gain and even in some cases to higher mortality rates. Perhaps this is another reason behind the diet industry’s quiet abandonment of its former nomenclature. But don’t be fooled: cleanses, detoxes and other “healthy” food regimens are the same old dieting ideas, just wrapped in shiny new packages.

The food and diet industries have long known that slapping the word “healthy” on a product increases its consumer appeal. Even tobacco companies used to hitch a ride on the health bandwagon, claiming in ads that doctors actually recommended smoking for their patients. While that may seem unthinkable to us now, most health claims (especially on packaged food) ought to strike us as similarly ludicrous; yet we’ve been brainwashed too effectively to sort out the true from (mostly) false. The larger, unpublicized truth is that very few, if any, of the nutritional claims for specific foods or nutrients hold up to prolonged scrutiny and study.

Our information economy works against consumers as well: we’re bombarded with news about studies that may or may not be scientifically valid, but we lack the resources or knowledge to do the necessary follow-up. In some cases, for example, these studies are funded by the very same special interests they promote. As a result, we rely on our institutions—media, government, medicine—to tell us what is “healthy,” when those very institutions are often either hamstrung or compromised by conflicts of interest. And all these new food restrictions deceptively make “health” their centerpiece; weight-loss is often made to seem incidental. Gwyneth Paltrow, after all, doesn’t sell herself as “skinny,” but as a glowing avatar of “health.” Yet why do people really buy her cookbooks if not to aspire to be as thin as she is? Weight and health have become utterly conflated.

One of the most problematic results of repackaging “dieting” as a health practice is how it breaches the taboo on inflicting adult food anxieties on children. Many (good) parents who wouldn’t dream of telling their nine-year-old to go on a diet have fewer hesitations about talking about the perceived benefits of cleansing, juicing, detoxing, etc. They may also be more likely to encourage restrictive eating in their children if they think this is the same as being "healthy." But while these behaviors may have the illusion of healthiness, in reality they pose very real dangers. Restriction is not the same as moderation; teaching children that eating is primarly about their health is not the same as teaching them a healthy attitude towards food. While many children will only learn that food is something not to enjoy but to view with cuation and fear, there are many others who will be more deeply damaged by making restrictive eating their norm. You won't know which side your child falls on until it happens; is that a risk you are willing to take? 

Childhood has been a special and protected stage of development for only a fraction of mankind’s history. For the most part, as societies develop, they improve at prioritizing childhood and providing children with what they truly need to grow and flourish. That protection is psychological as well as phsycial: we believe that children shouldn’t have to face the same anxieties, risks or responsibilities as adults. We have laws protecting what we’ve come to view as children’s rights, and the results are undeniable: it’s never been a better time to be a child, in many ways. Yet perversely, food and eating is one area in which parents are often falling short of the goals they set themselves, and in which we are still putting children at risk in ways that the vast majority of parents don’t recognize. Too often, it takes having or knowing a child with an eating disorder to make parents see how harmful many prevailing practices around food can be. 

We can decry the rising prevalence of eating disorders; we can blame the media for promoting unrealistic images of women (and increasingly, of men); we can point fingers at, for example, the fast food industry for aggressively marketing to children. But we must also do something that is much harder: we need to look within our own society, our own families, our own practices. We need to take off our blinders and accept the powerful influence familial food behaviors have on children. Rejecting the message that restrictive eating is the same as being healthy, especially when those restrictions are marketed to us by profit-making entities, is one way to begin improving the outlook for the next generation.

What I cooked this week, very much in honor of Marcella Hazan, 1924-2013:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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