Wondering how to insulate your kids from toxic diet culture? Want to help them be resilient and body confident? This article is for you!
As a non-diet nutritionist and eating disorders dietitian, I’m driven to helping you support body confidence and prevent eating disorders. This includes arming you with ways to combat diet culture messaging.
Kids are increasingly exposed to the influences of toxic diet culture everywhere. At school, on social media, in books and movies, and, despite our best efforts, at home.
In this post, I’ll share strategies you can start using today to create a more positive environment for your children. These tactics will help shield them from toxic diet culture. You’ll be able to debunk false messaging and help them think critically about what they see and hear.
Let’s explore what diet culture entails, why it’s detrimental, and how you can safeguard your kids from its effects.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is a problematic societal construct that places an undue emphasis on body size, weight, and appearance.
It promotes the idea that self-worth and happiness are tied to attaining a smaller body size or fitter appearance. This is often at the expense of an individual’s physical and mental well-being.
In essence, diet culture encourages the pursuit of thinness or fitness as the ultimate goal, no matter the cost. It emphasizes restrictive eating practices as the path to achieving these idealized yet often unattainable standards of beauty or “health.”
It’s important to be aware of its harmful effects. Then caregivers can work toward promoting healthier, more balanced attitudes toward food, body image, and self-worth with our kids.
Why is Diet Culture Toxic?
Diet culture poses numerous hazards. It preys on vulnerabilities and insecurities, fostering an unhealthy relationship with food, mistrust in our bodies, and low self-esteem.
Diet culture convinces us that a smaller or fitter body is 100% within our control through the “right” diet or exercise regimen. It fosters feelings of guilt and shame for eating what we enjoy or not exercising “enough.”
Disordered behaviors such as restricting foods, skipping meals, or over-exercise are often glorified or endorsed, or they can be the unfortunate response to buying into promises of diet culture.
Moreover, diet culture often perpetuates damaging stereotypes, reinforcing harmful beauty ideals that can negatively impact self-esteem and body image. These ideals fortify weight bias and discrimination against people in larger bodies.
Kids are especially susceptible to these messages, as their critical thinking skills are still developing. They can easily buy into these messages, if only to fit in with their peer group. And, to most kids and teens, social status is important and feels linked to external appearance.
Unfortunately, buying into diet culture can have long-lasting negative effects on kids’ mental and physical well-being. Let’s look at some examples of how this happens.
Examples of Toxic Diet Culture
Toxic diet culture manifests itself in various aspects of our daily lives, including:
- Social Media: The proliferation of “fitspo” and “thinspiration” posts that idolize specific body types and dietary habits, offering before and after photos and diet advice.
- Weight Loss Programs: Programs that promise rapid, dramatic weight loss, often at the expense of overall health and proper nutrition.
- Good Foods/Bad Foods: The notion that certain foods are “good” and others are “bad,” creating a sense of guilt or shame around eating choices.
- Diet Products: A glut of diet pills, teas, powders and other products that claim miraculous outcomes but are frequently ineffective or harmful.
- Body Shaming: Negative remarks or jokes about body size and appearance, whether in the media, among peers, or even within the family.
- TV and Media: Casting thin-bodied actors as the heroes or love interests and larger-bodied actors as the villains, perpetuating weight stigma.
- Body Bashing: Engaging in negative self-talk and self-criticism related to one’s own body in the presence of others, often followed by a negative, self-reflexive response by a peer (i.e. “My legs are so fat.” “No way, your legs are tiny compared to my huge thighs.”)
- Athletics: Encouraging weight loss to meet the esthetic standard of a sport such as running, dance or swimming, rather than focusing on performance.
Diet Culture Statistics
If your children are young, now is the time to start combating the harms of diet culture. No one is too young to be affected by these messages, even toddlers and preschoolers.
For example, in a study that evaluated preschool children’s weight bias after seeing images of human and cartoon bodies of differing sizes, children rated larger-bodied figures more negatively than thin figures.
Studies also show that by age 3, children have internalized body size stereotypes. Children as young as 5 have expressed body dissatisfaction and engaged in dietary restraint.
School Aged Children
By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their body weight or shape. While most elementary school children do not diet regularly (less than 25%), those who do know what dieting involves and can talk about calorie restriction and food choices for weight loss.
Other studies also show that:
- 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner
- 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat
- 81% of 10 year old children are afraid of being fat
- 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets
Worrying behaviors increase as kids are exposed to more diet culture messaging over time. In a study of over 2000 girls, teens who were labeled “too fat” at age 14 showed increased disordered eating thoughts and behaviors by age 19.
Another study of 496 adolescent girls found that over a period of 8 years, 5.2% of the girls developed anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. When the researchers assessed the girls for nonspecific eating disorder symptoms, 13.2% of the girls had suffered from an eating disorder by age 20.
Moreover, many studies have documented that about half of all adolescent females (35-57%) engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. As teens get older, this increases. In a college campus survey, up to 80% of the women admitted to controlling their weight through dieting.
Athletes are possibly more susceptible to the effects and pressures of toxic diet culture. One study found that 35% of female and 10% of male college athletes were at risk for anorexia nervosa. The same study found that 58% of female and 38% of male college athletes were at risk for bulimia nervosa.
Aesthetic sports, such as ballet or figure skating, can place significant emphasis on body size and appearance. Similarly, weight class sports such as rowing or wrestling tempt athletes to manipulate their weight.
As a result, young athletes may feel pressured to alter their bodies to fit a certain body type or standard for their sport.
This pressure can lead to disordered eating, dangerous practices to lose weight, and other health concerns. An estimated 62% of female athletes and 33% of male athletes in weight class and aesthetic suffer from disordered eating.
Why Worry About Toxic Diet Culture?
As we see in the above statistics, toxic diet culture can exert a profound influence on the well-being of our children. We’ve seen it contribute to:
- Over-emphasizing physical attractiveness to define self-worth
- Self-objectification and increased sexualization of younger kids
- Increased body dissatisfaction and body image concerns
- Compulsive exercise behaviors
- An unhealthy relationship with food that can last far beyond adolescence
- Eating disorders or disordered eating
- The perpetuation of weight bias and discrimination against fat people
- Mental health concerns, such as depressive symptoms and anxiety
Buying into toxic diet culture jeopardizes a child’s relationship with food and body, potentially going as far as deteriorating their physical and mental health or morphing into an eating disorder. Eating disorders have very high mortality (death) rates among young people, often due to suicide.
In addition, toxic diet culture also perpetuates anti-fat bias and discrimination against people in larger bodies. Weight bias is associated with bullying, receiving lower grades despite equivalent academic performance, and poorer physical and mental health outcomes.
If you suspect your loved one has an eating disorder, make an appointment with your child’s primary care provider. They can assess their behaviors and make recommendations for eating disorder treatment, if needed.
Protecting kids from toxic diet culture
Here’s the good news: building up a child’s self-esteem and teaching them to think critically about the messaging around them can reduce the effects of diet culture. In turn, we mitigate the risk of body dissatisfaction.
As parents, we can take steps to shield our tweens and teens from these destructive influences. While cargivers alone cannot control every influence on kids, we can help them mature with a positive and healthy self-concept.
Let’s explore some practical strategies to cultivate their self-esteem while steering clear of the pitfalls of toxic diet culture.
1. Openly celebrate body diversity
Normalize the diverse sizes of bodies in the world whenever you talk with your children, and especially if they bring it up.
If your young child uses the term “fat” to describe someone they see, help neutralize the word rather than allow it to be used negatively. Talking in private, this might sound like, “Yes, some bodies are fat, just as some are tall and others are short.” You can reinforce to young children that talking about other people’s bodies can make others feel offended.
In a similar fashion, you can help build empathy in your child. Be transparent about your own learning and understanding of diet culture. For example, you could try something like, “I want people in larger bodies to be treated with respect and dignity. I’m trying to unlearn some of the stereotypes about larger bodies that diet culture imposed on me.”
2. Diversify the types of bodies kids see
Starting from a very young age, caregivers can help expose kids to an array of body types. This helps kids expand their understanding of body diversity.
Here’s how to begin:
Introduce books with larger-bodied characters to your kids. The picture book Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder is for younger children; the middle grades book Starfish by Lisa Fipps is excellent; and the novel Fat Chance Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado is great for older kids. Talk compassionately about the characters and their experiences with your kids.
Seek out shows and movies with actors in diverse body sizes, such as Ghostbusters (the 2016 version), Dumplin’ or Hairspray. Watch them with your kids and comment on how movies that cast diverse bodies better reflect the world around us.
If your kids have access to social media, discuss who they follow and how their feed makes them feel. Help them expand their feed by sharing accounts that highlight diverse bodies doing lots of activities successfully.
3. Normalize weight gain in childhood and adolescence
Show acceptance and love for your child’s body, no matter what size or shape it is. This support is especially important as their body changes during puberty.
Help your child understand that weight gain is a normal part of childhood growth, puberty and adolescence. Gaining weight prior to a growth spurt is quite normal, and functions to help the body make growth and maturation hormones.
Specifically, you can share with kids that body size is mostly determined by genetics and other factors outside of our control rather than simply through diet and exercise choices. Education level, zip code, gut microbes, genes, sleep, medications, and stress all play a part in determining body size, among other factors. We have MUCH less control over our body size than diet culture would have us believe.
Kids also continue to grow and develop well into their 20s. With your teens, reinforce that their body will continue to change after high school and beyond – and that it is normal to continue to gain weight during adolescence. Debunk the unrealistic expectation that their body at age 22 or 25 will be the same size or shape as it was in high school.
4. Reduce diet culture language at home
Most of us don’t pay much attention to how we talk about food and our bodies. Diet culture language has become so widely ingrained in our culture, we don’t even recognize it. Take the common nutrition terms “healthy” and “unhealthy” for example.
Younger children have not yet developed advanced critical thinking skills. So, if we refer to foods as healthy or unhealthy, or good or bad, children may make the leap in their thinking that they are “bad” or “unhealthy” for eating certain foods. To kids, this black and white thinking is quite common.
As an illustration, if parents say something seemingly harmless like, “I’m being good tonight and not having cake,” children often interpret that as “I must be bad for having cake.”
Likewise, using terms like “junk” or “poison” when referring to foods that contain more sugar or fewer nutrients can leave kids feeling shameful for inevitably eating these foods. Worse yet, they may begin restricting foods or creating rules about what they should and should not eat.
To counteract this, you can start paying more attention to how you talk about food and your own body, even your inner-voice talk. What words come to mind when you think about your own body or food you eat?
Then, ask yourself, “Are these words I want my kids to use to describe their body? Or their food?” If you’re in doubt, consider more compassionate or neutral language.
5. Work on your own relationship with food and body
When my daughter was three years old and her younger brother had just been born, she had a favorite doll that she cared for the way many children do. One day I saw her nursing her doll, just as I was feeding my newborn.
She had been watching me so carefully. She mimicked me in other ways, too, saying to her doll, “It’s going to be alright,” or “I love you.” I was filled with pride! She was learning so much just by watching me.
Kids are keen observers. Just as often as I heard my child use that compassionate voice, I hear my own words come back to haunt me. Ugh.
If you are dieting or following a program in the name of health, know that your kids are watching you, following your lead. If you’re cutting out foods, counting your steps, or logging your food on an app, be aware: your kids are watching and internalizing these practices.
Perhaps you’re not dieting. Instead, maybe you avoid going out in a swimsuit or are keeping the smaller sized clothes in your closet with hopes they’ll fit again. Kids notice this, too. Doing so can reinforce the diet culture notion that smaller bodies are more acceptable or that larger-sizes carry shame.
Modeling body acceptance and body trust in front of your child can help them build body image resilience.
We’re always planting seeds in the minds of our children. If we want body confidence and a positive relationship with food to bloom in our kids, fortifying your own body acceptance and relationship with food is key.
Parting words on toxic diet culture
Protecting kids from the harmful messaging that surrounds us daily takes effort. Nevertheless, the body confidence and peaceful relationship with food that can come from our investment is worth every minute.
Sharing messages about body diversity and expanding your child’s world to include diverse representation of all body types is a start. Also, normalizing their growth and development can help insulate them from toxic messages that encourage disordered behaviors.
With attention to the language we use and how we model our own body talk, we can help kids understand that their bodies can be trusted and accepted, at any size.
Above all, it is never too early or too late to positively influence your child’s relationship with food and body. What small step will you start with today?
Hello there! I’m Britt, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. I can help you find freedom from life-long dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders. When I’m not writing about ditching diet culture, joyful movement or improving body image, you can find me hiking in Vermont’s Green Mountains, eating pizza, making modern quilts or sipping a hot cup of tea. Let’s connect!