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The dangers of diet culture: What parents can do to be a positive influence on their children

The dangers of diet culture: What parents can do to be a positive influence on their children

In today’s world, we are no stranger to “diet culture”— the belief that all bodies can and should be thin. We all live within a diet culture and there is no way to escape it. All you have to do is pay attention to how our culture accepts thinness and embraces making fun of overweight people to see that diet culture is everywhere. Diet culture can be seen in weight loss ads and conversations we have and hear with others — things like “I really earned my dessert today after working out,” or “Can’t wait for the holidays to be over so I can detox” or “You look great. Did you lose weight?”

Diet culture puts unrealistic pressure on everyone — children and adults alike — to live within a narrow range of false and dangerous ideals. It does not accept that healthy people can come in many shapes and sizes. Diet culture sends the wrong message that people need to be in thinner bodies in order to be valued, and mistakenly pressures people to value being thin even when thinness may be disconnected from any real health benefits. We are told there is one acceptable way to look and be in this world, and if we are not this way, then something is wrong with us.

Dieting promotes negative relationship with food

As a licensed clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, I often get asked this question about dieting: “My child and I need to lose weight. Is it okay to go on a diet?”

Dieting can negatively impact the relationship with our bodies and food. Restrictive eating can put a child on the path to developing an eating disorder because dieting teaches us that our bodies are something to be corrected and are somehow wrong for existing. Because diets are typically intended as short-term weight loss solutions and are largely unsustainable over time, the vast majority of people gain back the weight they might lose (and then some). This reinforces the idea that they have failed, lacked willpower, or somehow do not deserve to feel good in their own bodies. This focus on body shape often comes at the expense of true health and interferes with people’s abilities to find true meaning in their life through their relationships, work, and hobbies.

Every so often, there is a rebranding of diet culture using different code words to highlight the real goals of weight loss and thinness ideals. Typical code words include “healthy eating,” “eating clean,” “portion control,” and eating “whole foods.” There are many more words and phrases like this but the goal remains the same — change the size of your body, usually through restricting food intake or eliminating certain types of foods. Instead of assigning morality labels to food such as “good”, “bad”, “clean,” “healthy,” and “whole,” people should focus instead on following their own personal hunger cues, enjoying the pleasurable aspects of eating and exercising because it feels good for your body physically, emotionally, and mentally, instead of as a way to lose weight.

However, there are cases when people’s health statuses are negatively impacted by poor nutrition or lack of activity. In these cases, making important lifestyle changes is something that should be discussed with a trusted medical professional. But it’s also important to realize American medical professionals are raised in and absorb the same diet culture messages we all do throughout our lives. In fact, medical professionals are often the source of significant weight bias and fat phobia. With that said, parents and children should consult with a weight inclusive provider who understands that thinner bodies do not necessarily equate to health and fatter bodies are not inherently unhealthy. However, many people who are dieting to lose weight simply want to transform the look of their bodies versus focusing on specific health goals like lowering blood pressure or being able to play with their children without getting winded.

Be positive role models for your children

One of the biggest gifts that parents can give their children is to simply opt out of talking about food and bodies with any judgment. Parents should make it clear to their kids and themselves that their self-worth does not rest on their physical appearance, their weight, or how or what they eat.

Parents are models for their children, and they develop their earliest sense of self through their most trusted adults. When children grow up watching the people they love the most demonstrate disgust, sadness, and dissatisfaction with their bodies, it makes sense that children will begin to wonder about their own bodies and experience similar feelings. Children recognize when their parents’ actions do not match their words. It is impossible to pass along messages of body positivity and body acceptance if parents are too busy focusing on how to change their own body. This doesn’t mean parents should spend significant time praising their children’s bodies or telling them they do not need to change their bodies — this type of conversation tends to backfire as it continues to send the message our bodies are something to be constantly evaluated and judged.

Instead, parents and their children should focus on more meaningful conversations around human relationships, hobbies, and more important family values. Shift the conversation at home to praising children’s efforts (i.e., “You worked so hard to study for your math test – great job! Or “I love the outfit you picked out today. I know those are some of your favorite colors.”) These conversations are more powerful than showering praise on how good you feel about your body or how great your child’s body appears. In doing so, it helps steer the focus away from body shapes and sizes.

By creating a positive and meaningful environment for your children (by not talking about food, body shapes and sizes), you can help them develop healthier habits, values, and beliefs that will impact how they feel about themselves and their bodies in a more positive and nurturing way.

For more information about the Feeding and Eating Disorder Clinic at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, visits our website: Eating Disorder Clinic | Children's Hospital New Orleans (