diet culture

From the moment we welcome our babies at the hospital, they are greeted by a society obsessed with “the perfect body”. Welcome to diet culture little one!

It begins with comments about your baby’s birth weight. “She’s a big girl!” I heard this often with my 4 kg baby girl. Unfortunately, it just keeps on rolling from there.

Before we move forward, let me clarify that diet culture isn’t the same as being on a diet. Here is what most researchers and advocates  mean when talking about diet culture.

Diet culture is a system of beliefs and ideas which equate thinness with health and virtue. It tells us that a person’s value is tied to their body size. In worshipping a thin ideal, diet culture promotes weight loss (at all costs) as a means to attain higher status. As the same time, diet culture views only certain foods or ways of eating as “healthy” causing you to be hyper-vigilant about your eating and feel shame about eating “bad” foods.

Diet culture is not something that I want my kids to get caught up in. I’m pretty sure that you don’t want your kids trapped in the vortex either.

Diet culture pops up directly and indirectly – in obvious places and not so obvious places. It requires some practice to identify. When you choose to direct your attention towards it, you choose to help protect your child from its influence. As best you can at least.

I wasn’t always aware of diet culture. Working in the field of pediatric nutrition and having my own two children certainly brought this to the forefront for me. I’m still learning. I don’t have it all figured out. There are still things in my environment that could improve. But I’m choosing to learn and un-learn and practice and be an advocate. You can do this too!

Although this is not an exhaustive list, here are 7 steps to help you protect your kids from diet culture.

7 Steps to help you protect your kids from diet culture

1. Purge the notion of ONE ideal body type – the toxic “thin ideal”

Human bodies are not meant to all look the same. One only has to look at various cultures around the world and see that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes.

The size of a person’s body doesn’t (on its own) dictate their “healthiness”. Although the BMI (Body Mass Index) wants us to believe that our health is defined by a simple equation of weight divided by height squared, it is NOT that simple. (P.S. BMI is a flawed tool that was never intended for individual health tracking … but that’s another story for another day).

Diet culture wants us to believe that we can all be thin – just eat less and move more. There couldn’t be a more cringeworthy false statement. There are SO many more factors (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, disability status, dieting history etc.) that influence a person’s weight. Plus, there’s genetics. Did you know that research supports that 40-75% of the variance in body shape and size is due to genetic factors?

Don’t forget that there are real costs in striving for the thin ideal. These include physical costs, financial costs, social and relational costs, psychological costs, spiritual costs and more.

Help protect your kids from the thin ideal:

  • Model your own acceptance of and respect for bodies of all shapes and sizes. This includes your own body and your children’s bodies.
  • Let them see you investing your time, energy and money in non-appearance goals/values.
  • Point out body diversity that exists in nature (trees, plants, breeds of dogs). Just like trees or different breeds of dogs all look different, human bodies are made to be diverse too.
  • Carefully monitor your children’s media consumption. The thin ideal seeps into many popular children’s TV shows and movies.
  • Look through your children’s toys and books at home. Do their toys reflect body diversity? Do their books directly or indirectly infer that thinness is better?

2. Stop weight stigma and discrimination.

It’s known that higher weight children are more likely to be bullied by their peers . What may not be well known though is that family members are more often sources of weight bias than peers. In this study, the researchers noted that 72% of adults reported that they had experienced weight bias from family members. Unfortunately, “these comments last forever“.

Not only do the comments last forever, but they can completely affect the course of a child’s life. Weight stigma is a significant risk factor for depression, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. Weight-based stigmatization is also a predictor of binge eating, weight gain, extreme weight control measures and increased risk for eating disorders. (here)

As noted earlier, the media is also teeming with weight stigma. One study that analyzed children’s movies from 2006-2010 found that weight-based stigma, such as a verbal insult about a body size or weight, was observed in 84% of movies (here). I only had to watch a few episodes of some popular children’s TV shows on Netflix to hear this language and subsequently ban them from our house.

Help protect your kids from weight stigma and discrimination:

  • Get to know your own weight biases and talk to your kids about their biases too.
  • Be a detective and find out where your kids are being taught weight discrimination and fat phobia. Look at the media they consume, their books and toys. Consider the impact of family members, friends, teachers, coaches, health professionals etc. Ask to speak in private with any individuals who are perpetuating weight stigma to address what’s going on.
  • Teach your kids about the influence of diet culture all around us. Help them to be an advocate for people of all different shapes and sizes.    

3. Watch your words and actions because they’re watching you!

Have you ever noticed how your kids are like little sponges soaking up everything you say and do?

My daughter is particularly effective at doing this! I’m always amazed when I hear her role play with her toys and word for word repeat a conversation I had on the phone earlier with a friend! Their eyes are watching and their ears are listening!

You may not be in the best place with your own body image or relationship with food. However, you don’t have to be an intuitive eater or love every square inch of your body to raise a child who does.

Help set a good example for your kids:

  • Don’t shame or pick apart your body parts or food choices in front of your children. Look for ways to celebrate your body’s strengths and speak well of the foods you eat.
  • Avoid commenting on your child’s body. Choose to celebrate your child’s internal qualities (kindness, honesty, bravery etc.)  
  • Teach your kids that commenting on others’ bodies or food choices is not appropriate. I like to use the phrase “in our family we value … ” (e.g. not commenting on bodies).
  • Don’t label or categorize foods into categories like “good and bad” or “healthy and unhealthy”. Kids are black and white thinkers and they will feel bad about liking/wanting unhealthy foods which can lead to sneaking food and eating in secret.

4. Model eating for nourishment and joy.

Diet culture wants us to believe that eating is all about choosing “clean foods”, eating low-calorie, following a specific ratio of macronutrients and practicing portion control. While certain dietary practices are not in and of themselves negative for everyone, obsessing over every morsel of food that goes into your body is not healthy or helpful for you or for your kids who are watching.

Modelling enjoyment of all foods while listening to hunger and fullness cues is much more effective in helping your kids foster a good relationship with food and become intuitive eaters.

Help your kids to become intuitive eaters:

  • Do not engage in restrictive feeding practices for your kids. Restriction sets kids up for eating in the absence of hunger and overeating. (more here)  
  • Seek to nurture an “all foods fit” approach to eating in your home.
  • Do not make comments about food in relationship to a person’s weight.
  • Choose to focus more on your feeding relationship by practicing the division of responsibility in feeding vs. obsessing over what they did or didn’t eat at one meal.

5. Engage in joyful movement yourself and encourage your kids to do so too.

Diet culture wants our kids to learn that engaging in exercise is all about achieving the thin ideal. Can we all ban together and provide a different narrative for our kids please?!

Ever since the pandemic began, my kids started to see me exercise more (I used to do this on my way to or from work mainly). When asked about why I work out, I simply told them the truth, it makes me feel strong and helps my mood/attitude and makes me a more happy person. A few weeks later, my daughter wrote a book at school about what her family members like to do. In it she wrote “my mom likes to run because it makes her brain feel good.” I love that this is her understanding of why people exercise. Is this the same for your kids?

Help your kids see the joy in physical activity:

  • Don’t talk about exercise as a way to lose weight or earn your next meal.
  • Find a joyful way of moving your body and let your kids see you enjoying it!
  • Encourage your kids to find an activity or sport that they can enjoy doing as well.  
  • Help kids to understand the importance of physical activity for health, strength, mood, energy, socialization and fun!

6. Clean up your/their social media feed

I hate to only pick on ONE type of media as there are so many different mediums where diet culture is perpetuated. However, social media is a giant. And it’s getting bigger. A recent review of the literature on social media confirms that use of social networking sites is associated with increased body image concerns and disordered eating. (here)

Sponsored ads make it almost impossible to completely avoid content entrenched in diet culture ideals. However, there are some helpful steps that you can take without throwing away your phone or completely banning all social media (which may cause more problems for your relationship with your teen!)

Protect your child from diet culture on social media:

  • Unfollow accounts that do not help you to appreciate or respect your body. What you follow and see regularly has a big impact on you AND your kids. Do it for both of you! If you have older kids on social media, help them do the same.  
  • Create some boundaries for yourself and for your kids with app usage. There are settings within some of the apps themselves to limit usage or other external apps.
  • If your child comes across an inappropriate post, help them to think critically about what they see and what is written. Is the photo realistic? What product, service or “ideal” are they trying to sell?

7. Surround yourself with body positive, food positive supports.

We don’t parent in silos (though, it kind of feels that way with the past year of pandemic parenting!) Surrounding yourself with others who have the same values as you to raise body positive and food positive kids is so important. It is helpful for children to receive consistent messaging as they grow and learn about how to nourish and take care of their bodies.  

Surround your kids with positive role models:

  • Choose to surround yourself with people who have the same goals as you do. This may mean that you need to have some uncomfortable conversations with friends or family members about their current messaging around food and bodies. Provide some examples as to how you would like them to talk about food, exercise or bodies around your kids.
  • If a medical professional begins to discuss food, weight or wellness in a way that you think is damaging, state your concern. Ask to discuss the issue on a private call without your child present.  
  • If you’d like to work on your own relationship with food or body image or want to seek assistance for your child, work with a health care professional who aligns with your values.  

For me, the hardest part of being a body positive food positive parent has been letting go of the idea that I myself can protect my children from diet culture on my own. I can’t. You can’t either. Not forever at least. So let’s not only think of protecting them from it but preparing them for it! With our help, our children can be part of a new generation, one free from the tentacles of diet culture. If you need help navigating this for your kids, reach out. We’d love to help you.