Instead of a Diet for Kids, These Healthy Habits Create Real Change
At age 8 was the earliest time I remember feeling self aware of my body. I starting weighing myself regularly on the scale in our house without any idea of what those numbers really meant.
All I knew was that smaller I was and the less space I took up, the better. I thought eating less and running laps would help me reach these "goals".
I remember seeing ads for juice detoxes and tea cleanses that promised weight loss and a thinner body in a matter of days.
In high school, I was no stranger to diet pills, fasting, slim fast, and a host of other dieting products I thought would “fix” my body, make me more acceptable, or help me fit in with the crowd
These disordered eating behaviors and restrictive mindset transpired into a full blown eating disorder at age 17. I struggled all through college and missed out on what should have been some of the best years of my life.
While I am incredibly grateful to have healed and recovered from my eating disorder, there were grave physical and emotional consequences I suffered through as a result of this mental illness.
My own experience with and healing from an eating disorder is one of the biggest motivators that drives the work that I do today.
Eating disorders are fatal diseases, and I know that not everyone who struggles has the resources and help needed to enjoy recovery. I count my blessings everyday and have vowed that my own story wouldn’t go in vain.
While eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that are influenced by a variety of complex factors, including things that are completely out of our control, like genetics, I know there are things that CAN be done to help decrease the risk of these lethal diseases.
For me, dieting behaviors that I was exposed to in my childhood played a contributing factor.
Most importantly, I believe it is our duty to help protect future generations from the damage and dangerous side effects that often result from dieting.
Connection Between Dieting and Eating Disorders
Dieting is the most important predictor of the development of new eating disorders, increasing the risk of these mental illnesses. Adolescent females who diet at a severe level are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who don’t diet.
More recent research has found that 1 of 4 people who diet will get an eating disorder.
While not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder, there are serious risks and consequences involved.
Dieting, in its many shapes and forms in our culture, has become so commonplace that it’s easy to become desensitized to it. The tricky thing about dieting is that it’s often disguised within our current “wellness” culture.
The Diet Industry is Targeting Kids
Sadly, the multi-billion dollar diet industry in our culture seems to only be growing, with new marketing tactics now infiltrating younger generations.
Recently, Weight Watchers (which has been rebranded as WW), released a new app called Kurbo, targeted primarily for kids ages 8-17.
While disguised as a tool to help kids make healthy food choices, there is no mistake about the real intentions and motivation behind this marketing ploy.
Essentially, this tracking app disrupts a child’s innate ability to trust their own bodies and creates unnecessary fear and guilt around food and eating.
After testing the app myself, it was clear to me how destructive this tool was in creating restrictive eating habits.
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this app promoted as a tool for healthy eating habits is really a weight loss diet for kids with damaging consequences.
Dieting tactics or rules around food that promote restrictive eating behaviors do nothing for a person’s health, especially vulnerable children.
Nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and rules around food do not take a person’s (or child’s) individual needs into account. These only create behaviors that cause disassociate with their body and distrust their own body needs.
This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last way diet culture is attempting to target our kids. The conversation on how to lose weight for kids is something that has been around for decades, perpetuating the fear that has circulated if a child is overweight.
So what can we do?
The fact that diets are marketed towards children speaks to a greater fear that many parents and caregivers may be experiencing. Which brings us to the question - why and when might dieting be considered as an option for kids?
Why Do We Consider Dieting?
First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that raising kids is HARD work. Parents, including myself as a mother of 5, are doing the best we can with the information and resources we have available to us.
As parents, we just want the best for our kids. In an age of bullying and body shaming and fear around childhood obesity, we fear and worry about our kids.
We live in a world that is extremely harsh toward people who live in larger bodies, especially kids, and diets or restrictive eating of any kind can seem like a way to protect our kids in the world we are living in.
Some of the reasons that may influence a parent’s decision to engage in encouragement to diet with their children might include:
Concerns about their children’s health
Reactions to a visit with a health provider
Worry about their children being teased, shamed, and/or bullied about their body size
Cultural or societal norms
Having a history of dieting, disordered eating or of being bullied for body size
From a place of fear, we can manipulate how we feed them or promote eating behaviors that won’t serve them well in the long run, even though this comes from a place of good intentions.
Dieting in its many forms might seem like a solution to help protect our kids from a host of problems, including childhood obesity, body shaming and bullying, but it comes with a price - including many long term consequences.
This can be an especially difficult pill to swallow, especially if you struggled with weight issues or body shaming as a kid or if your child is currently struggling with any of these issues.
I understand that you’re trying to protect your child from things you may have struggled with as a child or from things you are worried they may struggle with.
It’s important to be aware of what all is at stake here so that you can make an informed decision with how to approach food with your kids. Dieting tactics will complicate their relationship with food and their bodies as they grow up.
The Dangers Connected With Dieting
Many of us may have had a history of dieting ourselves, or that’s all we knew from our parents or family growing up.
We are more likely to repeat the behaviors that we grew up around, and our parents are likely mimicking behaviors THEY grew up around.
Chronic dieting may leave you feeling as though you can’t trust yourself or your body, so you may be more likely to lean on a system of eating rules to help you navigate life.
Research has found that encouraging children to diet rather than modeling and adopting healthy eating habits can have long-term consequences that span generations, including:
Higher likelihood of using unhealthy weight-control behaviors
Increased risk of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder
Poor self-esteem and body image
Harmful emotional health outcomes
Emphasizing or encouraging dieting in any form can lead to a cycle of disordered eating and low self-esteem
Dieting behaviors have a generational transmission effect, meaning, we’re more likely to pass on eating behaviors we learned from our parents.
This post is not intended to create any shame around mothers, parents or families.
If you are currently dieting or have a history of dieting, I hope you will hear my heart here.
This information is not here to put you down in any way whatsoever or make you feel bad about yourself. But rather to present you with information and resources, to increase awareness so that you can make an informed decision about how you want to raise your own children.
I have so much compassion for you if you have been dieting or struggling on the dieting bandwagon. This is not your fault.
There are so many complex factors that influence the desire to diet. Largely, It's a systemic toxic system that purports to make money off of making people feel that they need to change their body to have any sense of worth, and food and exercise has been distorted to manipulate our bodies rather than nourish and be pleasurable.
Diets are marketed in a pretty package that makes us believe all our problems will be solved and disguised by wellness culture so it’s hard to even recognize a diet for what it is these days. Health has been mischaracterized to mean being in a smaller body or synonymous with weight loss.
You might have picked up in these behaviors from your parents or your own family who were doing what they thought was best for their health.
However, the research is clear about the harmful effects of dieting behaviors, physically and mentally, for adults and children.
Another consequence of dieting is that it creates a sense of fear from which you may feed your own children.
When you feel like you can’t trust your own body, you’re more likely to feel as though your child’s body cannot be trusted, or that you need to interfere to manipulate an outcome for your child.
This can create disruptions for your own child from a young age.
Choosing a Different Future for Your Family
Why am I passionate about this?
As I shared earlier, I struggled with a severe eating disorder from ages 17-23, I barely made it through my college years and don't remember half of it. I hurt my body to the point where I thought I wouldn’t be able to have kids.
My eating disorder was triggered by multiple factors, including dieting behaviors that were modeled and encouraged in my own family. I don't blame my family, nor is any of this there fault whatsoever.
Eating disorders are fatal mental illnesses that are triggered by the result of many complex factors, including genetics and other things that are out of anyone’s control.
I know they love me and were doing the best they could with the information and resources they had at the time. But now, through my healing journey, I know better and am committed to doing things different for my own kids.
You can do the same for you and your family to prevent dieting legacy from entering another generation.
We can be the ones to STOP DIET CULTURE in its tracks, to say NO MORE, no more negative effects of diet culture from being passed down to our kids, grandkids, and all generations that come after us. NO.
As parents, we can be empowered to stop the cycling effects of diet culture from being part of our children’s generation in the same way it was part of our lives.
There are other proactive and effective ways we can help protect our kids from a lifelong battle and struggle with food and their bodies
Instead, let’s focus on behaviors that build a lasting foundation for health for years to come. There are other ways to help our kids build confidence in their bodies and with food, and to help decrease their risk of disordered eating and eating disorders.
This doesn't mean you don't care about health. Its understanding the big picture of what affects your physical and mental health and trickles to your own kids and making an intentional choice to do something different.
Focusing on Behaviors That Bring Lasting Health
What about health then?
Choosing NOT to engage in dieting behaviors doesn’t mean that we don’t care about health.
Instead, we are choosing to promote healthy behaviors that will create a strong foundation from which kids can grow and decreasing the risk of having a chaotic relationship with food and their bodies.
There are other ways to teach our children about health, food and their bodies without the unethical push to diet and dangerous weight loss tactics.
Kids need to know they are safe in their bodies, worthy and valuable no matter what their weight or sizes.
Ways to Help Build Healthy Habits For Kids (That Don’t Involve Dieting)
If you’re concerned about health, consider focusing on THESE behaviors to help support you and your kids and to help them build a lasting foundation for health for years to come:
Create and have safe places for your child to play that encourage physical activity
Promote decreased screen time, including time spent on devices and watching TV
Work on your own healing to build confidence around food and your body to model more positive behaviors: Kids learn from the role models in their lives. Because of this, it’s important to ask yourself if your own relationship with food and your body is something that you would want your own children to replicate? Parental food behaviors are often reflected in children. What behaviors do you want your own child to reflect? Please approach this from a place of self-compassion and curiosity to learn more about what areas in your own life you may need some extra support in.
Keep language neutral around food and your body: Research has found that when parent conversations are neutral around food and weight, this can be a protective factor for kids against disordered eating. Leaving any discussion of weight and size out of conversation with your kids can be helpful for their own eating habits and body confidence.
Feed with trust in your child to eat what they need that will help them grow in the body that is right for them: Healthy eating habits for kids are based on a trusting and positive feeding relationship with their caregivers.
Help them build a neutral appreciation for a variety of all foods
Aim to have more meals together as a family: Studies have found that children who eat at least three meals per week together with their families are more likely to have a healthy diet and eating patterns, have less of a risk for disordered eating, and be less likely to experience depressive symptoms.
Help your child learn that their worth is not tied to their body size.
You can trust that in doing these things, your kids will grow into a healthy weight that is right for them. More importantly, your kids will reap the health benefits that come from a healthy relationship with food and their bodies for years to come.
Dieting may have been part of your past, but you have the power to stop it from being part of your child's future.