7 ways you’re accidentally teaching diet culture to your kids

If you give your kids water first when they ask for a snack, or serve vegetables first so your kids fill up on them, you may be following outdated, harmful advice.

Many of us grew up steeped in the belief that a good body is a thin body. This is known as diet culture—the idea that being skinny is more important than (or necessary for) our overall physical or mental health. It’s a pervasive viewpoint in North America, so there’s a good chance that you’ve been an unwilling participant in it.

Perhaps you marvelled at a celeb’s rapid weight loss after pregnancy or snickered when a famous singer put on a few pounds. Maybe you grew up watching your parents count calories or you’ve personally cut carbs to slim down. These are all examples of how we put slim bodies on a pedestal and feel bad for ourselves for being less than “perfect.” And it’s all so very wrong.

As parents and caregivers, we do our best to ensure our kids eat well and have good self-esteem. But what if diet culture furtively sneaks into our parenting, and some of the things we say can potentially be damaging?

It would be so freeing to raise the next generation of kids to love their bodies and value their health, rather than count calories, fear food, and feel guilty for enjoying something delicious. And it is possible!

Here’s how to start eliminating toxic diet culture from your lifestyle, so your child can grow up with a healthy relationship with food and a positive body image.

When your child asks for seconds

Diet culture dictates that smaller serving sizes preserve a slim body shape and that “overeating” is gluttonous. So when your kid asks for seconds, you might find that it elicits a negative response from you. You might feel frustrated, disappointed or even concerned. You might say something like, “I think you’ve had enough, you must be full?” Or maybe you have them fill up on water or vegetables before a meal so their stomach is full and they eat smaller meal portions.

But instead of dictating your child’s portion sizes, respect their appetite instead. Kids have an innate ability to monitor their appetite, and you can foster it by letting them decide when they are hungry and when they are full. A better response is to provide seconds without judgement and say, “I’m so glad you are enjoying this!”

When your child sees you looking in the mirror

“Ugh, my stomach looks huge in these pants.”

“I wish I could lose 10 pounds.”

Diet culture ensures that you only see your “flaws,” so it’s possible you’ve made comments like these to yourself around the house or while shopping.

Your kids hear you say this. But what they see is a beautiful parent. They won’t understand why you are so hard on yourself when they just see love and perfection, and they will start to self-criticize as a learned behaviour.

Try something new. When your child is listening, compliment yourself. Say, “My arms are perfect for hugging you” or “I love my strong legs because they mean we can ride bikes together.” Then ask them what they love about their bodies, too.

When you’re grocery shopping

Diet culture means you aren’t likely to buy many salty, sweet or higher-fat treats, since they don’t align with your weight-loss or clean-eating goals. When your child asks if you can buy candy or chocolate at the grocery store, a diet culture response is, “It has too much sugar, which is unhealthy. Put it back.”

Instead, allow your child to pick a few foods that interest them, whether or not they contain sugar (or salt or fat), and say, “Sure, let’s try it!” An occasional treat won’t hinder an otherwise balanced diet that is filled with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein. Children learn by trying new foods and exploring different tastes and textures. Restrict too much and the item becomes even more desirable.

When you go out for ice cream

If you’re steeped in diet culture, you may notice yourself encouraging frozen yogurt instead of ice cream or asking your kid to forego a cone in place of a cup to cut calories.

A better situation is to let your child pick any flavour they want while withholding negative comments. When the ice cream arrives, say, “That looks so good! Enjoy!” And you can enjoy your ice cream too.

When you’re watching a movie

Many movies and TV shows make fun of fat characters by depicting them as lazy, slow or always hungry. You may laugh alongside and say “Ha, that’s just like daddy [or whoever]!” Then you’re complicit in bullying someone based on their weight.

Instead, celebrate the internal qualities of characters. Maybe someone on the show is brave, adventurous or kind. Point it out. To counteract the fat-shaming messages, say to your children, “In our family, we celebrate the differences in all shapes and sizes and don’t judge people based on how they look.”

When you’re at a festive event 

You’re in the car driving home after a family party. “I shouldn’t have had the cake,” you say to your spouse. “I’m only eating vegetables for the rest of the week.”

Sitting quietly in the back seat, your kid internalizes the idea that some foods are bad and eating them means they are a bad person who needs to do better.

Diet culture dictates that you should feel guilty when you enjoy foods at a party or holiday—but you shouldn’t, and neither should your kids. Instead, embrace holiday foods, enjoy cultural traditions and share family recipes. Say to your child, “When I was your age, this was my favourite too!” or tell them stories about your fondest childhood food memories.

When you’re being physically active

Exercise is used in diet culture to “work off” the food you eat or to “earn” your next meal.

Avoid letting your kids hear you say things like, “I need to get to the gym to burn off last night’s pizza.” Kids should learn that exercise is fun, makes them strong and helps them feel happy (they may be too young to understand endorphins, but it’s true that exercise releases hormones that improve mood). When you’re doing physical activities with your kids, try emphasize how much fun you’re having.

Even if you’re not in the best place with your own body image or relationship with food, you can still raise a child who is less affected by diet culture. Start by being a bit more aware of your words and actions, and to what degree diet culture might be at the root of them.

Registered dietitian and mom-of-two Cara Rosenbloom is president of  Words to Eat By and specializes in writing, nutrition education and recipe development.

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