How to Protect Your Kids From the Diet Culture

The question below was submitted through my “Let’s Talk About It” form, with permission to share. I asked a fellow registered dietitian, Emily Fonnesbeck, to lend her intuitive eating and parenting expertise. She speaks from experience in helping to stop the diet culture with her kids, and her work. You can find more of her writing and nutrition advice on emilyfonnesbeck.com.

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Q: “As the daughter of an anorexic mother and a father who was perpetually trying to lose weight, I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to develop positive relationships with food but basically starting from scratch with no close role models. I think I’ve done OK — not great, but OK. BUT, now that I have a child {18 months old} of my own, I’m realizing how easy it is to let toxic thoughts and words about food and eating seep into my own language and behavior. I’ve read a lot of great stuff (Ellyn Satter, etc) about feeding children in emotionally healthy ways, but now I’m more conscious of how I feed myself in front of my child, and how I talk about food, and I don’t have a lot of great models for doing that well.

How can I be a good role model when I’ve never had a good role model?“

A: First, I just want to totally validate your concern. I can imagine how confusing, overwhelming and lonely this might feel. I sincerely hope my advice is helpful.

Second, I’m not sure anything about motherhood ever feels certain. It took me awhile to embrace that, but learning to let life be uncertain is the best thing I ever did for myself. I’ve come to realize that we all bring our own unique life experiences with us + our kids come with their own unique personalities and challenges. I have 3 children of my own and each one of them is different and needs different parenting strategies and techniques. I spent a lot of time early on feeling like I needed to figure out how to parent perfectly, which only made me terrified of making any mistakes (impossible not to do).

I’ll share a few things that helped me overcome those fears, and then talk specifically about body image and food.

  • Reframe your goal. It’s easy for any of us to get caught in the perfectionism trap. A lot changed for me when I switched my priority to just making sure my kids felt loved and supported.
  • Since we are human and we will make mistakes, I just hope my kids see me being humble, willing to learn, willing to admit when I’m wrong, willing to learn from mistakes and wanting to grow, change and improve. It doesn’t matter where I start, only where I’m going.
  • Keep a sense of humor. I hope to teach my kids not to take themselves or life too seriously. My default mode is self-critical, over thinker so I’ve made a conscious effort to laugh when things go wrong.

To answer your question specifically, the best gift you can give your child is to take care of yourself.

I would encourage you to continue working on your OWN positive, healthy and happy relationship with food. This is permission to let it be about you, not about your child. They will naturally learn from you, so make yourself the priority. And all that matters, as I said above, is that they see you trying.

Having kids can often help put food and body image in perspective for people.

In fact, I never give nutritional recommendations to clients that I wouldn’t want my kids to hear. It’s a good rule of thumb for me – would I want my kids to hear this or do this? We work so hard to keep food messages positive for kids but adults need the same. If we don’t want our kids counting calories, planning cheat days or eating clean, why do we think it’s OK for us?

Diet culture can stop with us; we don’t have to pass it on.

It might be a good idea to set some boundaries to keep those messages out of your home. In fact, I know full recovery/prevention from disordered eating is possible, but only if we set boundaries to keep us safely on the other side. Below are a few ideas to help you resist the subtle allure of diet culture and body dissatisfaction.

  1. Throw your scale away or don’t bring one into your home. This is a super important boundary. The number on a scale will all too often affect how you feel about yourself, what you tell yourself and what food decisions you make. It’s too much external pressure when it’s actually a really meaningless measurement of health and wellbeing. Also, never comment on your child’s weight (or yours). Ever.
  2. Don’t buy or subscribe to gossip magazines. The benefit here is probably two fold. 1) You’ll have more time for more important stuff. 2) Diet culture and body preoccupation run rampant in these so you’re better off without them.
  3. Avoid body checking. This can be a really hard habit to break but includes spending too long in front of the mirror, catching glances of yourself in windows or other reflective surfaces, feeling parts of your body for fat or bones or muscle, sucking in for pictures, etc.
  4. A social media detox. Unfollow or hide any feeds that are body or food obsessive and follow those that are food and body positive. You’ll know which are worthwhile by how they make you feel. If you find yourself comparing or questioning your own “enoughness,” then you know it’s time to be done with them.
  5. Avoid any and all forms of dieting, strict meal plans or even “clean eating” programs.  You should be aware of the subtle way these types of programs or plans can lure you into problematic behaviors.  While they may look innocent and promise great “results”, they will NEVER replace the connection you have with your internal wisdom.  EVER.
  6. Lastly, speak positively about your body, your food and yourself. I hope it feels sincere, and this list will likely help it become authentic if it’s not already, but I’m totally supportive of “fake it till you make it” here.

Our kids will be exposed to plenty of bogus nutrition and health messages as they get older. They will likely be led to believe that strength and self-improvement comes from eating a certain way, sticking to a diet or pushing through the pain in exercise.  I don’t believe it.  Real strength and self-improvement comes from being true to yourself and respecting yourself enough to avoid the demoralizing world of weight, body shape and diet obsession. The best way to help your child avoid that world is to avoid it yourself. Setting some boundaries and recommitting to yourself (sometimes over and over again) is the absolute best advice I can give you.

All the best to you!

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Thank you, Emily, for sharing your insight as both a parent and an intuitive eating dietitian! 

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