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How To Protect Your Kids From Diet Culture

An interview with parent coach Oona Hanson.

Years ago, I wrote a book about the dangers of dieting called Smart People Don’t Diet. This was before phrases like “diet culture,” “anti-diet,” and “body positivity” existed. My goal, as a psychologist and research scientist who had spent my entire career studying eating, weight, and body image, was to explain the paradoxical effects of dieting. Namely, dieting tends to lead to weight gain, not loss, an unhealthy relationship with food, and decreased self-esteem. These are lessons I wish I’d learned earlier; I spent my childhood as a ballerina restricting what I ate and never feeling thin enough.

Although the title of my first book was intended to be catchy, today I find it somewhat regrettable. It has a more judgemental tone than I’d like, given we are all living in diet culture and vulnerable to its pressures. I’ve talked with countless parents who have had not only their own weight and body worries, but also have concerns about their kids developing body dissatisfaction and maladaptive eating behaviors.

Talking with other parents was just one impetus behind The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless. Writing this book has led me to connect with like-minded professionals, including Oona Hanson, who has coined the phrase “parenting without diet culture.” As a parent coach, educator, health advocate, and parent herself, Oona is on the front lines trying to help families foster a healthy sense of self in spite of pernicious cultural influences.

Below is my interview with Oona, so that you can also help your kids reject diet culture, love themselves, and grow up fearless.

First of all, what is diet culture?

Diet culture is a system of beliefs, dominated by the idolization of thinness, the (ever-changing) good/bad categorization of foods, and the myth that everyone can and should be within a narrow range of body size. Diet culture also piles on morality beliefs about food and bodies. So if you hear someone say, “I was so good today—I only ate X,” that’s coming from diet culture.

Like any cultural norms, diet culture beliefs are largely invisible—the “water we’re swimming in”—so some ideas can feel natural or innate when in fact they are culturally-created concepts we have been taught systematically since early childhood.

What do you mean when you say “parenting without diet culture”?

It’s about making the home a safe haven from diet culture while also educating our kids to be critical of—and resilient to—the harmful messages about food, exercise, and bodies they will inevitably encounter.

Some practical examples of Parenting Without Diet Culture: treat all foods as neutral (no good/bad, healthy/unhealthy), honor physical diversity (no hierarchy of bodies), and move to feel good (not as punishment for eating or a way to “earn” food). Some other examples: call out fat jokes, never compliment weight loss, and don’t buy “diet” foods.

Food is an important part of helping kids feel safe, loved, and a sense of belonging. Taking this anti-diet approach can lower the risk of eating disorders and supports a child in recovery from an eating disorder.

Are there differences in parenting without diet culture for girls and boys?

When parents hear the word “diet,” they are more likely to think of girls, but people of all genders can be harmed by the dangerous cultural messages about foods and bodies. Parents need to know LGTBQI youth have an increased risk of developing body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.

When our daughters are entering adolescence, we need to talk with them not just about periods and bras but also about the rapid weight gain that happens around puberty. Their body fat percentage has to double in order for them to menstruate, and their body fat percentage will continue to go up; it’s a harmful myth that girls are all supposed to “lean out” after menarche. Girls tend to use more social media, and it’s a minefield full of celebrities and other influencers posting before/after photos, “what I eat in a day,” and other harmful (often manipulated) images. So we need to be curious about what accounts our daughters follow and help them build their media literacy skills.

Boys definitely have body image struggles, but because our culture “feminizes” appearance concerns, boys often feel ashamed of their worries. It’s important we talk to our sons about these issues, particularly as they enter puberty. Boys often feel competing pressures when it comes to diet culture—they are shamed if they are considered “fat” but also suffer if they are seen as “too small.” The focus on hyper-muscularity—and the accompanying male-oriented marketing of supplements, protein bars, and weight-lifting routines—can harm our sons’ mental and physical health. It’s a good idea to gauge our sons’ beliefs around nutrition, fitness, and body image.

Source: Photographee/Shutterstock

What are some of the mistakes that parents most often make when it comes to resisting diet culture?

Diet culture can be tricky to identify because it often enters through the Trojan Horse of “health and wellness.” We’ve been trained to equate thinness with health and to see foods as potentially either “toxic” or “super.” Even at the pediatrician’s office, our children’s well-meaning doctors can unintentionally reinforce oversimplified ideas about health and weight.

A lot of parents would never disparage someone else’s body or tell them how to eat, but they may struggle with their own body image concerns or history of disordered eating—and most kids are aware, even if their parent doesn’t state it explicitly. Our kids are always watching. Parents deserve support for themselves as they work to create a healthy environment for their kids.

What is one easy thingstarting todaythat parents can do to change their approach to parenting?
It’s really hard to change decades of thought patterns, so I send parents a lot of compassion. An important step is to trust your kids to trust themselves when it comes to hunger and satisfaction. There’s pressure on parents to micromanage their kids’ eating and weight—pushing food on thinner, more cautious eaters while trying to restrict kids in larger bodies. Not only do these approaches tend to backfire, they also send the message that kids can’t trust or accept their body. We want our kids taking care of themselves by listening to their intuition, not to outside pressure or external rules. If the thought of this kind of freedom really terrifies a parent, or if they’re concerned about a child’s relationship with food, it’s worth getting support from an anti-diet dietitian who works with families.

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