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What is Diet Culture? (and why it’s harmful to kids)

Kids are surrounded by diet culture. Even Weight Watchers is now on board with a program for kids. It’s a diet disguised as a “wellness program,” which can be just as harmful as calorie restriction diets to a child’s wellbeing. Let’s dive in.

The global market for weight loss products and services is expected to increase from $254.9 billion in 2021 to $377.3 billion by 2026.

What’s driving the diet industry?

a group of children at school - what is diet culture?

A growing non-diet movement says that diet culture is to blame.  

Diet culture is based on the belief that thinness equals health, including myths about food and eating and a moral hierarchy of body shapes and sizes. 

Your child doesn’t have to be on a diet to be harmed by diet culture. 

In this article, you’ll learn where diet culture hides and what you can do to shield your kids from it. 

What Are Examples of Diet Culture?

Diet culture is everywhere. It’s a big part of how we think and talk about health in the U.S. 

It can be in the form of comments about bodies and weight, criticism about how others eat, and fat-phobic language.

Or, it might be disguised as “health.” Unfortunately, the messengers of the diet industry are often well-intentioned adults that kids trust, including schools, health blogs, parents, and even pediatricians. 

At first glance, lifestyle diets seem to promote healthy eating and exercise.

But the real motivation for keto, Whole 30, and other food elimination diets is often to lose weight. 

What’s wrong with wanting to get in shape?

If you follow me, you know I’m all for a healthy and active lifestyle for families and children.

What diet culture gets wrong is that it equates thinness with being disciplined, motivated, and valued.

There’s a very dark side to diet culture. Recently, studies tied social media and its diet culture messages to a higher risk of eating disorders, negative body image, and depression in young girls. 

Kids follow social media influencers who glorify dieting and anorexic behaviors.

Other influencers claim that their bodies and faces result from hard work and good genes when that may not be the case. 

There’s also a trend on social media to place a high status on committing to unrealistic exercise and diet plans, which are unhealthy, especially for growing kids.

Here are some ways diet culture shows up in a child’s day-to-day life.

  • Discussing calories and calling foods “good” or “bad”
  • Comments about a child’s size or shape by adults or other kids
  • Lessons in health class that emphasize smaller sizes as the path to good health
  • Lifestyle diets that promote “health” by cutting out food groups to shrink one’s size or change the shape of one’s body 
  • Social media influencers who glorify “health” with unhealthy eating behaviors and promote unrealistic beauty standards

How Diet Culture Affects Kids

Diet culture is unhealthy and harmful to kids and teens in a few ways.

Body Dissatisfaction

Diet culture’s emphasis on body shape, size and appearance are major contributors to a negative body image and body dissatisfaction.

Body dissatisfaction is defined as having negative thoughts, feelings, and perceptions about your appearance. 

The pressure to look a certain way affects both young boys and girls.

In one study, 59.4% of girls wanted to lose weight compared to 44% of boys who wanted to gain weight.

Diet culture and eating disorders 

Eating disorders are complex. Genetic and environmental factors work together to increase a child’s risk of an eating disorder.

Kids with a strong genetic susceptibility might be more likely to be affected by environmental factors such as dieting, bullying, teasing, or overeating.

Studies show that 60% of teens may already have an eating disorder or have a high risk of developing one.

Body dissatisfaction plays a significant role in eating disorders during adolescence. 

According to one study, if teens felt pressure to be thin, body dissatisfaction increased the risk of eating disorders. In the same study, kids with high levels of body dissatisfaction at ages 13, 14, 15, and 16 were more likely to develop an eating disorder four years later.

Want to learn more about eating disorders? Check out The Eating Disorder Guide: How to Recognize Signs of Eating Disorders and How to Help.

What Can You Do?

Parents still have the power to check diet culture at the door by engaging in feeding practices that encourage a healthy relationship with food.

Here are some strategies that shield kids from diet culture’s body ideals:

Be a role model

The first thing you can do as a parent to protect your kids from diet culture is to be aware of how the diet industry affects what you believe about weight and health.

Be a role model by improving your relationship with food and not engaging in diet talk or talking negatively about your body. 

Don’t make comments about weight or eating choices 

Any comments about a child’s body or weight–good or bad–can affect their body image.

The words don’t have to be negative criticism to harm a child’s self-esteem. 

Here are examples of diet culture language that harms kids even when adults don’t realize it.

Are you eating again? 

Comments like these shame kids and make them distrust their hunger and fullness signals.

Shaming kids for eating more than you think they should often lead to overeating or emotional eating.

You look good. Did you lose weight?

While it’s meant as a compliment, it can sound to kids like they only look good enough now that they’ve lost weight. 

That’s bad for you. You’re going to gain weight.

When you call food “good” or “bad,” you assign morality to it.

Kids may feel like they’re being good or bad based on what they eat. 

In their book, Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole, and Elyse Resch use “grow food” and “play food” to describe food that promotes health vs. food that doesn’t provide nutrients.

I have called these categories similarly, growing foods and Fun Foods.

Parents provide the food, so fill the refrigerator and pantry with mainly “growing foods.” 

Don’t force kids to eat their vegetables 

Bribing, shaming, or punishing kids to get them to eat their vegetables doesn’t teach healthy eating habits. 

Ultimately kids may end up with a negative relationship with food and poor eating behaviors such as meal time power struggles and picky eating.

Kids may also learn to associate fruits and vegetables with punishment and food restriction.

Remember Satter’s Division of Responsibility.

You remain in charge of what your child eats and where and when. Your child is responsible for how much he eats and if he eats.

Trust that your child will be okay even if his diet isn’t perfect every day. 

Don’t Restrict Food 

Kids are growing and need plenty of nutrients and calories to make healthy growth happen. Diets aren’t recommended for kids.

Restricting food can lead to sneaking or hiding food and binge eating.

Instead, encourage your child to follow his hunger and fullness signals and to eat intuitively

Send Me The Do’s & Dont’s of Picky Eating!

Final Thoughts about Diet Culture and Children

As a children’s nutrition expert, it’s my life’s work to encourage healthy eating for families and children. Nutrients are critical for cognitive and behavioral growth when little ones are growing. 

But, I’ve also seen firsthand through my work the negative effect of diet culture on children’s self-esteem, well-being, and health.

I’ve worked with many tweens and teens with eating disorders.

It’s important to walk the line between wellness for kids vs. weight

After all, it’s all about habits kids create to help them make food choices as adults.

Are you grappling with diet culture? Let me know what you’re struggling with!

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