Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping is exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful and healthy.
Parents, of course, intend to protect their kids from harm. But when it comes to food, health, weight and body image, fostering an uncomplicated, positive outlook can be a giant challenge.
That’s because of diet culture, part of which is the pervasive messages we get from ads, all types of media each other — and sometimes even medical and nutrition professionals — that being thin is a both a sign of and a path to health, happiness and social success (and that being anything other than thin will deliver the opposite).
Even if a parent doesn’t consciously believe this, these harmful messages seep into our thinking. You are not alone if you feel a need to help control your child’s weight to shield them from weight stigma and spare them body judgement – we want to protect our kids from everything.
That’s why I’m writing this article, as a registered dietitian: You deserve to know how to create a safer place for your child right at home, and set them toward a path of body confidence and a sense of worthiness — no matter what size their body is. Even when they are hit with the inevitable diet culture messages that can make kids feel insecure or foster self-loathing, parents have the power to show their kids that they can thrive despite them.
Diet culture is rough on children.
Our culture is not just unfair, but in many cases dehumanizing, to people living in larger bodies. That’s the actual problem, not people’s bodies themselves. But in trying to spare our kids pain and stigma by directing them to eat a certain way — especially amidst the tenacious and persistent cultural focus on childhood weight — we unknowingly point kids toward a risky and unproductive path for their health.
I’m not here to lay blame on any parent, but I do want to offer the opportunity for some protection against the diet culture that is the real issue. That’s why I wrote How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence, with Amee Seerson, RDN. This book teaches parents the importance of putting a child’s relationship with food and body on the front burner, including how to know if the parent's own relationship with these topics are impacting the way they feed their kids.
It is a lot — so much of parenting is — and it can be overwhelming. But even though you can’t change the world overnight, you can change what’s happening at home.
How does diet culture get into kids' heads?
Diet culture is everywhere. Parents are under a lot of pressure to be perfect, and part of that is feeding our littles “right” — raising “good” eaters and “healthy” people. With the best of intentions, we do things like withholding dessert until the veggies are eaten, limiting certain foods like bread, snack foods and sweets, or overanalyzing every ingredient on a food label, which shows kids there is a lot to fear.
You might think these things are common sense, right? Recommendations like these are often affirmed by “experts.” But one critical thing to know is that mainstream healthy eating advice (also mostly well-intentioned) is heavily influenced by diet culture. Doctors, dietitians and policy makers live in diet culture too, and they also work within a fatphobic medical system. Diet culture is even taught in schools as “nutrition education” with the intent to keep kids from gaining too much weight — as if all bodies are designed to be the same relative size and shape (news flash — they’re not).
The result is that, often without meaning to, many experts fuel diet culture, which isn’t helping our children. One of the most toxic aspects about the way weight concerns and health concerns are treated as one and the same (they’re not) is that the risks and known outcomes of dieting are rarely disclosed. This is dangerous and unethical, because what weight science shows us when you read the literature critically is that attempting intentional weight loss (a.k.a. dieting) is likely to be harmful to your long term health, predicts future weight cycling and increases the risk for developing an eating disorder – all which are also applicable to kids.
We don't mean to, but parents contribute, too.
It would be a miracle if we adults didn’t have our own harmful diet culture beliefs we’ve absorbed over the years. One survey found that 75% of women have disordered eating, and a previous study found that 90% of parents of 5-year-olds in the United States reported recent dieting. The fact is, we were all raised in this same diet culture, and so were our parents and probably our grandparents, which makes it really hard to not unwittingly pass on these dangerous messages.
Even if you were not raised in a dieting household or don’t identify as someone who diets, you may talk about “eating cleaner,” how “good” you were for eating a “healthy” salad, or how proud you are that you can fit into your smaller jeans. This leaves kids with the idea that these are good examples of how to take care of their health. That’s exactly what diet culture wants your children to believe and to never question — and can contribute to disordered eating.
The result is that we are winding up with the exact opposite of what we, as parents, want to see in our kids the highest rates of eating disorders ever in kids and teens — and among mental illnesses, the rate of death from eating disorders is second only to opioid addiction. Studies show that at least one out of four “normal dieters” will progress to a clinical eating disorder and 35% progress to pathological dieting. This wreaks havoc on one’s quality of life, overall happiness, self-confidence and long-term physical and mental health.
In short, we have forgotten the very basic nature of feeding – that it is about nourishment, not weight.
But raising a kid who is satisfied with their body is not only possible, but so worthwhile. It won't always be easy — you're going against a pervasive cultural force — but then, you're a parent, so you're used to challenges for the sake of your kids.
Here are 10 ways you can create a supportive and safe anti-diet space for your family:
✔️ Pay attention to diet culture and raise your kid to question its premises.
Caregivers have a huge opportunity to show kids how to question what they hear, to be critical about what they are taught, what they read and what they observe. When they come home from school talking about how “bad” sugar is because they learned it from their friend or an adult at school, you can engage in conversation curiously, saying “That’s an interesting thing to say. I wonder, is sugar always bad? Is it nice that we get to have yummy tasting food with our meals or bake cookies together? Would we want to stop celebrating with special cakes or going out for ice cream? I wonder if sugar really is “bad,” or if that’s maybe not quite true. What do you think?”
You don’t have to convince them you know everything — you are simply teaching the skill of critical thinking about what they hear about food and health so that when they are surrounded by diet messaging they can pause before taking it at face value.
✔️ Highlight who your child is and what they are interested in, not their changing body.
Know who they spend time with, how they are doing and emphasize all the things you love about them — other than their appearance. Bodies are always changing, from the day we’re born until the day we die. Young bodies go through rapid phases of growth and development and kids are often uncomfortable, self-conscious and insecure about it all. What they need from you is consistent validation, support and unconditional love and respect for their body and for who they are.
So, at a time when your child has gotten dressed up for a party, instead of “You look so great, what a flattering dress!” try “I’m so happy you get to go have this time with your friends.” My 7-year old has started asking “Do I look pretty?” I usually respond with: “You always are amazing and beautiful to me, no matter what.” Use words that feel natural to you and communicate acceptance and but skip language that highlights body size or a need to look smaller or different. This also means not offering unsolicited feedback such as “I think the other pants would look better on you.”
Evidence supports the idea that we should not be pressuring or forcing kids to eat anything, especially the things you actually hope they will eat. Leaning on kids to eat “healthy” foods can work for some families in the short-term, but is not likely to promote more intake of them long-term when pressure isn’t applied.
It also comes with a big cost: mealtime battles. Precious family time can be overtaken by arguments about a child’s eating, instead of meals being about positive connection and chatting about the day. Pressuring a child to eat more or eat less can significantly increase their level of mealtime anxiety, making eating more difficult for anxious or cautious eaters. It can also steer them away from listening to their innate hunger and fullness signals or being relaxed enough to respond to them.
All in all, try to keep food comments to yourself and spend meal time connecting with your kids. Offer a variety of foods that works for your budget and cultural preferences, and give kids the space to decide for themselves what they’ll eat from what’s offered without pressure or praise either way. When you feel the need to pressure, punish or reward for eating, say to yourself, “Its ok to let my kid choose what to eat from what is available. They don’t need to be a “perfect” eater. Perfect eating doesn’t exist.”
✔️Call off the “food police.”
How do you feel when someone polices your own choices? Chances are, not so great. The foods you restrict or place rigid limits around are very likely to become the most desired foods, and it gives these foods a lot of power as “special” or “forbidden.” The result? Kids may choose to eat more of these foods when you’re not around, hide or sneak them or learn to feel bad about themselves for even wanting them.
Even just the threat of deprivation (whether it’s because you are one of the millions of families who experience actual food scarcity, or from food policing) has been shown to lead to binge eating. For the most part, kids are born knowing how to eat and can self-regulate quite well unless there has been an interruption in their relationship with food. If there has been, the solution is not restriction, but permission to eat.
To be clear, you don’t even need to police sugar! There is a lot of chatter about sugar and sugar addiction, which makes caregivers anxious. Yet there is not strong scientific evidence to support that sugar addiction in humans is actually a thing, and in animal studies we see it only in cases where access to sugar is restricted. You will be giving your child a great gift by allowing them permission to eat food, experience how different foods make them feel, and not over-controlling their eating. Help them to learn and know they can rely on their body’s messaging!
✔️Be curious about changes in your child’s eating.
When you observe changes in their eating, it could be a sign of concern, such as anxiety or depression or possibly an eating disorder. Don’t assume that your child is not at risk for an eating disorder based on their appearance — kids at all sizes across the weight spectrum, of all genders, races and abilities can develop disordered eating. Never praise your child for weight loss, but do pay close attention and be curious if they are getting enough to eat.
✔️Encourage conversation about bodies in a way that is respectful and celebrates diversity.
Many families avoid talking about bodies, thinking it’s a way to avoid body judgement — but that really just makes body talk feel off limits. It’s more protective for kids to normalize talking about bodies with you, and to demystify them. Home can be a safe place to ask questions, and conversation is a great way to model that “fat” is not a bad word — it’s the negative meaning our society has attached to “fat” that’s harmful.
The goal here is to celebrate all bodies and expose kids to body diversity. When a child makes a comment about their body being “big, soft, squishy or bumpy” instead of saying, “no it’s not!” or telling them to just not talk about bodies, you can say “Yes, it is! Isn’t that neat?! Bodies come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes, there isn’t one good way to have a body.” Or, “Mine too! I love my soft belly, wiggly arms or big bottom.” These conversations model that you appreciate diversity in how we look, and neutralize and normalize how bodies exist instead of upholding rigid beauty standards. From their earliest years, we can teach kids that all bodies are worthy of respect and dignity.
✔️Make sure other adults and caregivers in their life are on the same page.
Talk to their pediatrician and request that weight and BMI are not emphasized as health indicators. The doctor may not be aware that BMI especially is not a reliable indicator of health, and has a long, problematic history steeped in racism, as author Sabrina Strings, Ph.D., writes about in Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia.
What their doctor might think is an encouraging comment such as “as long as you stay active you’ll stay at a healthy BMI” can be shaming or even trigger an eating disorder. The same harmful messages can come from babysitters, teachers or co-parents or grandparents. Identify who are other important adults in their lives and discuss an anti-diet philosophy. When all the adults are on the same page, it reinforces supportive and validating messaging, helping to build resilience against diet culture.
✔️Monitor social media.
TikTok and Instagram can be a toxic place for young minds with diet and fitness messages that promote disordered eating. Tune in and talk to your kids about what they’re seeing. These can also be channels for improving body appreciation messaging and creating positive connections as well, so the key is to be aware and keep an eye on what they’re taking in.
✔️Think about about your own relationship with the scale.
I say this with utmost compassion — so many of us have had negative or traumatic experiences relating to our bodies, our appearance, or our size. Feel empowered by an anti-diet approach, instead of shamed by diet culture, by exploring how you can shift the narrative around bodies and weight at home for your kids.
Even if you aren’t at a place where you are ready to disengage from the pursuit of weight loss, there are many shifts you can make, like deciding what not to talk about it around kids, no longer pressuring or praising them about food and learning and reflecting more on your own inner experiences.
You can intentionally model anti-diet behaviors as a clear way of communicating what you hope to teach your kids. Simple places to start include: try to not body bash yourself and don’t judge others bodies or food choices. With a self-compassionate stance, take steps at the right pace for you, such not expressing guilt for relaxing instead of exercising. Be aware of how often you talk about feeling guilty, having "cheat days," "earning" your food with exercise, criticizing your sugar intake or any other weight talk.
✔️Model for them what it looks like to eat with joy.
Respect your body and try to eat in a way that is satisfying, nourishing and pleasurable. You deserve to enjoy food! If it’s been many years of relying on diets and rules, learning to be kind to yourself around food and trusting your body may be a process. Whether it’s around your own eating or your child’s, getting comfortable with permission to eat can feel nails-on-a-chalkboard hard for someone who has experienced food shaming, chronic dieting or trauma about food and body. You are so not alone if this piece is a struggle. When breaking old food rule patterns start very slow and practice gently tuning in to how you feel, reminding yourself you have permission to eat what you’re hungry for when it’s available, and exploring what it feels like to eat in a way that leaves you satisfied.
Ultimately, if we want to save our kids from diet culture's shaming darkness, we need to also try to save ourselves. The more we commit to this, the safer and less shaming our communities, classrooms and playgrounds will eventually be.