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Diet

5 Strategies to Protect Your Child From Diet Culture

Help your child eat well and feel good about their body.

Key points

  • Diet culture is a powerful and pervasive force among kids.
  • Parents who avoid talking about weight raise kids more protected from eating disorders.
  • Avoiding the "good" food/"bad" food dichotomy makes it easier for children to eat well.
Mieke Campbell / Unsplash
Source: Mieke Campbell / Unsplash

If you’ve ever heard your child say, “I feel so fat,” you already know that listening to them criticize their looks is heartbreaking. But even if your child has never expressed worry about the size and shape of their body, you may have concerns of your own.

Is it okay to let them eat so much? Are they gaining too much weight? Or how do I teach them to eat healthy without making them self-conscious about every bite?

These are some of the questions I get from parents daily.

Diet culture pressures us to make our bodies fit cultural ideals of thinness. That pressure wreaks havoc on our relationships with our bodies and food.

Our children are not immune. Girls as young as five have reported restricting food because of worry about their weight. An increasing number of boys fall prey to diet culture, too, expressing concerns about not being "muscular" enough.

Despite those facts, it is possible to help your child feel good about their body and eating. First, we must recognize the influence that we're up against. Then we can take steps to make our kids more immune to negative pressure.

What Is Diet Culture?

In its simplest form, diet culture is the shared belief that thinner bodies are better bodies. Diet culture assigns higher value to smaller bodies and eating styles that help you be and stay thin.

Diet culture can be very obvious, subtle, and much less clear. For example, advertisements for slimming clothing or foods that help you “fight fat” are part of diet culture.

Even without realizing it, much of our attitudes and beliefs about food and eating revolve around the idea that we need to be thin.

Diet culture sends the message to our kids that they need to be in thinner bodies to be valued. Yet parents need to help children avoid dieting at all costs. Kids who diet are five to 18 times more likely to develop a full-blown eating disorder, which can have dire consequences.

1. Nix Mixing Weight Talk With Food.

When it comes to body weight–yours or your child’s–avoid talking about it completely.

If you’re raising a child with a larger body, weight talk might feel necessary or helpful even. Yet research shows it is not.

When parents talk about weight–including eating to lose weight or even maintain weight–kids have more disordered eating habits, including binge eating, lower self-esteem, more body dissatisfaction, and a higher risk of depression.

If you’re searching for the right things to say at the table, talk about how food tastes or benefits the body. For example, saying, “isn’t it neat that eating carrots can improve our eyesight?” or “Did you know that eating yogurt can help strengthen our bones?” is preferable to "these foods are low calorie" or "are good for my diet!"

2. Avoid Focusing on Portions.

Many parents feel the need to guide their children when it comes to how much they need to eat. Yet, research shows that kids do best when parents trust them to make those decisions themselves.

Children are born with an innate ability to regulate their food intake based on their hunger and fullness sensations. As parents, our job is to help our kids stay attuned to those interoceptive sensations.

When we step in and tell our kids to stop before they are ready or feel full or satisfied, we teach them to ignore their internal body signals and listen to us instead.

Creating this kind of distrust of the body and hunger can have negative consequences on eating, triggering feelings of confusion, shame, and guilt for a child regarding food. Plus, it sets kids up to eat even more of those same foods we put a lot of limits on.

Research shows that when parents restrict certain foods–even with the best of intentions–their children are more likely to overeat or feel out of control around those foods when exposed to them, creating a negative dynamic that can last into adulthood.

A better approach? Checking our need to control amounts and allowing our children to self-regulate themselves instead.

3. Keep Villans Out of the Kitchen.

Parents can support kids in feeling good about their eating by avoiding using the same language as those who promote dieting and diet culture.

For example, referring to certain foods as “fattening” or “junk” can trigger feelings of guilt and shame. This is especially true if you’re referring to something your child enjoys eating.

Opt for a more neutral attitude towards food to support your kids in feeling good about eating.

One way I help parents do this is by acknowledging that ALL foods have value and can provide some nourishment. Sugar is a carbohydrate that provides energy. Fat is essential for brain function. Even often demonized snack foods like chips offer B vitamins and fiber.

4. Be Extra Clear About Values.

Diet culture is based on a bias against larger bodies. Protect your child from internalizing this. Be very clear that body size has nothing to do with a person’s health, personal qualities, or value.

You can explain that you value people for their behaviors and attitudes, not the way they look.

To reinforce this, avoid the tendency to compliment or comment on appearance. Draw attention to positive efforts your child makes or qualities they have instead.

For example, you can also say, “I love the way you stayed focused on your homework even though we were making a lot of noise,” or you are “so brave to make a new friend.”

5. Get Ready for It.

Whether it is during puberty or later, at some point, almost every child expresses concern about their body shape or size regardless of their weight.

While our first instinct might be to reassure our kids that they “look great" or “aren’t fat,” it’s important to avoid minimizing their concerns.

Instead of telling your child, they don’t need to worry about it, have an age-appropriate discussion about diet culture. Explain the reasons that focusing on our weight can be harmful. Emphasize the importance of accepting our body for what it can do, not what it looks like.

Lastly, focus on being accepting of yourself too. Modeling self-acceptance and appreciation of your body is a powerful message your child can embrace.

References

Davison et al., "A Longitudinal Examination of Patterns in Girls’ Weight Concerns and Body Dissatisfaction from Ages 5 to 9 Years", 2003

Patton et al., "Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years", 1999

Neumark-Sztainer et al., "Family Weight Talk and Dieting: How Much Do They Matter for Body Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating Behaviors in Adolescent Girls?", 2010

Gillison et al., "Can it be harmful for parents to talk to their child about their weight? A meta-analysis", 2016

Riley K. et al., "Parents’ engagement in “fat Talk” and associations with obesity and disordered eating in their children", 2018

Eneli1, et al., "The trust Model: A Different Feeding Paradigm for Managing Childhood obesity Obesity (2008) 16, 2197–2204.

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