Diet culture has become a pillar of our modern existence. Can you remember the last time you scrolled through Instagram without seeing a no-kale-leaf-out-of-place #keto plate? Or a glowing, spandex-clad yogi striking a pose atop a canyon in the ultimate show of #fitspiration?
But diet culture doesn’t just appeal to adults, it can be incredibly influential on our kids, too. Greater social media use (particularly photo-based apps), tend to be associated with disordered eating. And that influence kicks in well before adolescence. In fact, children as young as six — and especially girls — begin to express dissatisfaction with their bodies, and 40 to 50 percent of elementary school girls are concerned about becoming too fat.
When a child or teen expresses an interest in dieting or dissatisfaction with their body, as parents, we may feel conflicted. On one hand, we want to help our kids feel comfortable in their skin and nourish their bodies with nutritious foods and physical activity. We hear about the prevalence of childhood obesity, and are even presented with weight loss programs that specifically target children. But at the same time, we certainly don’t want to send our children down a path that could ultimately harm them physically, mentally, or emotionally.
So is there a healthy way for a child to diet?
“If by ‘diet’ you mean a restricted eating style meant for weight loss, then no, dieting for weight loss is not recommended during adolescence. Diets are not appropriate for children,” says Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Creator of the Wholitarian Lifestyle.
“If a parent has concerns about their child’s weight, speaking to the pediatrician and seeing a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatrics are both good first steps,” Malkani says. “While weight loss diets are not recommended for children, a registered dietitian can guide parents through the process of establishing the healthy eating habits and lifestyle behaviors that will help their child grow into a more appropriate weight over time, without compromising growth and development.”
A pediatrician can also help you sort out if weight is actually an issue, or if it’s just a perception, says Dr. Kristopher Kaliebe, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida and spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Due to massive levels of exposure to unrealistic body types through the media, many of us have distorted views of what the normal human body would look like,” he says. “The pediatrician can sort out these things, and give a supportive approach towards moving forward.”
The dangers of dieting young
For one, restrictive eating is antithetical to the developmental needs of kids and teens. During childhood and adolescence, kids need to gain weight in order to grow properly.
“In middle childhood, around ages eight, nine and 10, when children are supposed to be putting fat onto bodies in preparation for the teen years when they grow taller, we often hear that this is the time parents become worried because they see their child gaining weight,” says Chevese Turner, Chief Policy & Strategy Officer at the National Eating Disorders Association. “This is very very worrisome.”
Dieting can create a slippery slope toward disordered eating. One study of 14- and 15-year-olds found that dieting was the biggest predictor of developing an eating disorder. Subjects who had dieted moderately were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, and those who practiced extreme restriction were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than people who did not diet.
In addition to putting kids at risk for disordered eating, dieting simply doesn’t appear to lead to better health. Rather, research suggests it sets people up for “weight cycling” — losses followed by gains — or could lead to binge eating.
“What we know from literature on dieting is that 95 percent of people, including children, will regain the weight within five years,” Turner says. “Were not sure what happens to other 5 percent, but we suspect those folks are using disordered eating behaviors to keep weight off of their bodies have in some way adjusted in some way, but it’s not the norm.”
And by encouraging children to diet, parents don’t only put their children at risk for becoming overweight or obese, developing an eating disorder, or having lower body satisfaction, these effects trickle down. A 2018 study found that the negative outcomes and behaviors associated with being encouraged to diet by a parent were transmitted to future generations.
Risky eating behavior to watch
If your child has expressed interest in dieting and you’re concerned that they might be at risk for disordered eating, there are a few behaviors to monitor.
“Disordered eating is secretive, so if you have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, trust it,” Malkani says. “Studies show the sooner you get professional help for a teen or child, the better the prognosis.”
She advises parents to keep an eye out for a fixation on or a rigidity around food. This could look like calorie-counting, making a radical shift in eating style that cuts out an entire food group, and compulsive or compensatory exercise — thinking, for instance, that eating a meal requires a certain amount of exercise to burn it off. Other problematic behavior includes frequent weighing or eating abnormally large amounts of food and then spending a long time in the bathroom.
“If you notice these red flags, the first step is speaking with a pediatrician and getting a referral,” Malkani says.
How to raise healthy eaters
To combat the negative effects of diet culture on your child, it’s important to cultivate a healthy attitude toward food and nutrition — and it’s never too early to start.
“A healthy relationship with food and raising intuitive eaters starts in infancy,” Malkani says. “The more we can educate parents on how to create a healthy feeding dynamic from the beginning, the more we can prevent issues down the road”
Prioritize family meals. “There’s tons of research to back this up,” Malkani says. “Children and teens who eat meals with families are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, have a happier relationship with weight, and are more likely to do better in school.” Plus, teens who eat meals with their family at least three times a week week are 35 percent less likely to engage in disordered eating, according to one study.
Make all foods ‘legal.’ Create an environment at home where food isn’t forbidden or equated with a certain number of minutes on the treadmill. “With eating disorders, you see a lot of people putting foods into categories of ‘good’ and’ bad,’” Turner says. “That really sets up an individual for a dysfunctional relationship with food.”
Take a holistic approach to health. “Rather than focusing on weight, a focus on general health is more important. Is the person exercising eating right and getting enough sleep? This applies for teens and children too,” Kaliebe says. Broaden your emphasis beyond eating habits to a wider range of healthy lifestyle behaviors, like daily physical activity, adequate sleep, and emotional support.
Watch your words. Pay attention to your self-talk around dieting and body image. “Being a positive role model around food and weight is really important. Our kids are quite influenced by what they see and hear at home,” Malkani says. Equally valuable: taking a positive tone around your child’s weight and food choices. Make sure you’re giving them unconditional acceptance that isn’t connected in any way with their appearance or weight.
Help your child see the value of food. Help your child make the connection between good nutrition and better performance when it comes to their passions — whether they love theater and music or sports. “That’s a key way to help them prioritize healthy eating as opposed to dieting for the sake of fitness,” Malkani says.
“We all want to do what is best for our children. I understand the feeling of wanting a child to lose weight so they feel better about themselves or out of concerns for their health, but the thing that diet culture shields from us parents is that we’re told it’s for our children’s health, when really we’re harming their health long-term by starting that process,” Turner says. “If parents can learn to be okay with their child’s body size, and help them understand that food is not the enemy, they can learn to have a healthy relationship with food.”