Ditching Diet Culture: How We Can Do Better For Our Kids
There’s so much pressure to focus on our outward appearance, whether we’re discussing the latest weight loss fad or justifying what we eat by saying “It’s a cheat day!”. Diet culture is so normalized in our everyday thoughts and words that it can be hard to even notice when we’re doing it. For a lot of us, it isn’t until we have kids that we realize the damage these comments can have on our kids. Here are the basics for ditching diet culture so that we raise non-picky eaters who have a healthy relationship with food and with their body.
Ditching Diet Culture: How We Can Do Better For Our Kids
Written by: Jessica Diamond, MPH, RDN
With summer here, there’s heightened pressure to focus on our outward appearance. Really, that pressure is everywhere all year long, whether we’re discussing the latest weight loss fad or justifying what we eat by saying “It’s a cheat day!”. Diet culture is so embedded and normalized in our everyday thoughts and words that it can be hard to even notice when we’re doing it.
For a lot of us, it isn’t until we have kids of our own that we realize the damage these comments can do. Over time, even the smallest, most harmless-seeming comments can make kids self-conscious and complicate how they think about food, nutrition, and body image. We have an entire podcast episode on diet culture that explores our personal experiences with it and how we are working to break its cycle within our own families. But in the meantime, here are the basics for ditching diet culture so that we raise non-picky eaters who have a healthy relationship with food and with their own body.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is everywhere because American society values and rewards thinness. When we talk about diet culture, we’re talking about “a set of beliefs that values thinness, appearance, and shape above health & well-being [and] places importance on restricting calories, normalizes negative self-talk, and labels certain foods as good and bad.” It feels like almost all of us are inundated by diet culture from family, friends, and the media. It’s really everywhere we look: “Ugh, I need to lose this baby weight,” “I can’t believe I ate ice cream with the kids,” or “You look so good, what’s your trick?” (which we all know means you look thin).
It’s so hard to avoid diet culture that, in the US, almost half of all adults have tried to lose weight in the last year. This can create such a complicated and toxic relationship with food that leads to yo-yo dieting, cheat days, or feeling guilt and shame when we eat something “bad.” Moms are especially impacted by this during pregnancy and postpartum. We can’t think of a time in our lives when more people comment about our weight and appearance, either positively or negatively. At its worst, diet culture leads to disordered eating and eating disorders, which affect a greater number of young people each year. This makes it all the more important that we, as parents, try to repair our own relationship with food and our body so that we break the cycle not just for ourselves, but also for our little ones.
Tips for Ditching Diet Culture With Your Kids
Compliment your kids’ positive internal qualities more than their appearance. Pay close attention to what you praise when you compliment your kids. Appearance-based compliments are so common: we hear “You look so pretty” or “Your dress is so cute” all the time! While these are intended to be nice and we can still say them (in moderation), they also reinforce diet culture and lead to a preoccupation with appearance. How we talk to our children – and how we talk when we are around them – matters so much because they are sponges and absorb everything we say. When we affirm their internal qualities, like bravery, curiosity, or resilience, we are showing them that those are the qualities we value. So, make an effort to validate their internal qualities, like “You’re so brave,” “You have a great imagination,” or “I love spending time with you.” Just think about if someone gave you a compliment like that – you would feel so seen and appreciated!
Avoid talking negatively about your body around your kids. When you are feeling uncomfortable with your body (and we all do at times!), try not to make comments about it in front of your kid. It’s obvious why the negative comments about your body are harmful, but even positive comments that relate to dieting, like “I’m so happy I fit into my ‘skinny’ jeans,” or “I’m finally dropping my baby weight,” communicate that thinness is what is really important to us. This will be a major change and feel really awkward for many of us (especially for women), but you can start by just being more aware of how often you’re thinking about and commenting on your body in front of your kids. When you feel the urge to comment aloud about your body – positive or negative – take a breath and think about how you would feel if that statement came out of your kid’s mouth. Let’s make an effort to celebrate our bodies in front of our kids and say kind and loving things like “My body is strong,” “I love my body,” or “I’m so proud of what my body does!”. We know this will be awkward at first, and perfection is not the goal, but when we start to become aware of our thoughts and words and start to praise our bodies instead of criticizing them, it will make such a difference.
Stay neutral about food and don’t pressure your kids to eat certain things. Pressure (even when it’s positive) and restriction always backfire, no matter how well-intentioned you are. We totally get it: we want our kids to grow up eating lots of nourishing foods. The problem is that the pressure, whether positive or negative, leads to them eating more of the foods you don’t want and less of the foods you do want, and it often results in picky, non-intuitive eating because they’re used to taking their cues from you, rather than from their own body. The best way to raise intuitive eaters is to teach our kids to eat when they are hungry, stop when they are full, and enjoy the eating process. They will learn to listen to themselves as long as you don’t make judgment calls about certain foods and don’t dictate the order or portion size of the foods they are eating. Kids will notice how you talk about certain foods, so by staying neutral, you give them the freedom to choose for themselves. When you’re tempted to comment on the foods your child is eating, play it cool and talk about anything but their food.
Follow the division of responsibility. We want our kids to have a healthy relationship with food and not fall into the traps of diet culture.So, it’s important to encourage them to listen to their own bodies.The division of responsibility is a simple framework that will make sure this happens: it gives parents and caregivers a set of jobs and babies and kids a set of jobs, which will help you stay in your lane and encourage your child’s independence. Under the framework, the parent or caregiver decides what is on the menu, when meals happen, and where they happen. Babies and kids are responsible for how much and whether they eat at all. This means that you decide the meal and then place it in front of them with an invitation to “eat as much or as little as they want.” Part of raising an intuitive eater is for the adult to learn to respect the child’s own cues and trust them to eat when they are actually hungry. This means learning to accept that your child may not want to eat at times or may eat more or less of a food item than you’d like them to.
Make all foods “fit” and don’t use food as a reward or punishment. Making all foods “fit” recognizes that a well-balanced diet includes all types of foods from fruits and vegetables to chocolate and dessert. When you use food as an incentive, you put certain foods on a pedestal. We do this so often, we don’t even realize we’re doing it! We call desserts “treats” and make them a big deal, tell them that “spinach will help you run faster,” or bribe them to eat their main meal before dessert. While all well-intended, these comments will make your child fixate on these foods and train them to listen to you, rather than themselves, when they are choosing what to eat. If you’re looking for more specific tips on keeping food neutral and the language you can implement at mealtime to set your kids up for success at mealtime, we highly recommend our Feeding Your Baby Solids course, which has great information for parents of older kids, not just babies.
Celebrate “movement” rather than “exercise.” Focusing on movement, instead of talking about exercise, will help our kids start to make movement a part of their everyday routine and not associate exercise with something that happens for only a short period of time or something that you need to do to lose weight. Whether you park further away from your destination, take an afternoon family stroll, or just get outside on the weekends, we all feel better when we move more.
Also, be sure to check out our other articles about raising intuitive eaters, our podcast episode, Ditching Diet Culture: How We Can Do Better For Our Kids, and our Feeding Your Baby Solids course. Make this the summer you ditch diet culture for you and your kids. Whenever you can, minimize negative “body talk,” get in your swimsuit at the pool, and praise your kids for all of their wonderful, non-appearance-based strengths. These are the memories you’ll both remember, and it will be more freeing than you could ever imagine!
If you or your child is having a health emergency, please call 911 or your emergency services number immediately.