Helping your child feel confident in their skin is of paramount importance to most parents, but you might not realize how even small, throwaway comments about food, weight, and body image can impact even very young kids for years or decades to come.
Chances are, you've got your own long-held, deeply rooted beliefs about this stuff, and it can be incredibly hard to unlearn decades of messaging that certain body types, diets, and a perceived level of health are superior to others. Thankfully, you can break the diet culture cycle within your own family, and it can all start by simply removing moral value from food. Eating disorder pros tell Scary Mommy how and why it's so important to do so.
Diet Talk and Little Ears
If you're lamenting about all the "junk food" you ate around the holidays or about how "fat" you feel (even though fat is not a feeling), or you're discussing a friend that has "really 'let herself go,'" there's a solid chance your child is picking up all kinds of negative messaging about body image, even if you're not talking to or about them directly.
"As soon as children begin to understand language, they pick up on the way that adults around them describe things in their lives, including food," says Keri Baker LCSW, a Florida-based therapist specializing in disordered eating. "Many of us grew up in households consumed by diet culture, which set the baseline for how we talk about, understand, and interact with food. When we started to venture out into the world (whether at daycare, school, etc.), these diet culture messages continued to be reinforced and taken as hard truths."
"Researchers have noted kids at age 4 and 5 are already parroting caregivers and how they talk about food and bodies. They are also naming that 'fat' is not a positive word and is associated with negative outcomes," adds Julie Duffy Dillon MS, RD, NCC, LDN, CEDS-S, a North Carolina-based registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist. Prior to the teenage years, she notes that "kids can conceptualize only in black and white categories, so hearing good vs. bad food is easy to pick up, retain, and internalize. Trying to teach healthy vs. unhealthy instead doesn't make it any better."
If you can recall feeling concern about your body early on, that's not a coincidence either, says Melodie Simmons, MS, LPC, CEDS-S, ACHE, an Arizona-based licensed professional counselor, certified eating disorder specialist, and the corporate clinical director of Soul Surgery. "Anecdotally, people have reported feeling their bodies were 'not right' as early as 4 years old — this is because children hear how the adults in their lives speak to and about themselves and subsequently echo the same statements."
All Foods Are Good Foods
It's not difficult to reframe your language around food with your kids, but it is crucial that you do so, especially if you want them to develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies as they grow up, the pros point out.
Dillon notes that children can't yet parse "the difference related to health compared to behavior. For example, a child may have heard that cookies are bad and also hitting their sibling is bad." They then connect anything "bad" with morality, even though all foods can have a place in a balanced diet.
"Even if parents aren't micro-managing their children's intake, kids are picking up on the ways in which their parents are navigating food choices," says Baker. "A parent might serve their child a slice of cake at a birthday party and tell them it is OK for them to have it, but say that they are 'watching their figure' or 'can't eat sugar' like their kid can. These subtle messages are confusing to kids and will stick with them."
It's not necessarily helpful to reframe "good" and "bad" foods as "healthy or unhealthy," adds Dillon. "When kids learn which foods are in the 'unhealthy' category, they can develop intense fear of those foods, feel guilt when they do eat them, or judge other kids who are eating these foods." When it comes to food, the only "bad" or "unhealthy" food is one that has gone spoiled or moldy, says Dillon. As for "clean eating," are you dousing your food in dish soap? Then perhaps it is "clean," but it's not better or worse for you than any other food, no matter what diet culture drums up these days.
Dillon says that messaging about fresh foods vs. processed ones can add a classist layer to the morality conundrum. "Most foods that are shelf stable and economically accessible (think boxed macaroni and cheese, canned fruit, and peanut butter crackers) land in the bad or unhealthy category. When kids learn how to categorize foods and see their classmates eating these foods, often they will judge them in the only way they know how: as bad. Setting kids up to judge food sets them up to judge peers who may not be as economically advantaged." She recommends instead "teaching kids that there are no bad foods and that all parents send their kids to school with healthy food packed with love."
Some other subtle ways parents and caregivers can perpetuate food morality myths include using food as a reward or consequence, praising weight loss, and shaming weight gain, adds Simmons.
How to Counteract Diet Culture
Unfortunately, it's not just parents and caregivers that perpetuate this messaging. Your child will hear it everywhere: at school, around other loved ones, on social media, even at the doctor's office. So while you can't shield your child from pervasive cultural beliefs, you can shift the narrative where it counts — right in your own home.
"I believe that being honest with kids and educating them about diet culture (in a developmentally appropriate way) is one of the best gifts parents can give them," says Baker. "Letting kids know that they are going to hear messaging about foods being 'good' or 'bad' and understanding why this happens in our culture is important. It can also be very impactful for kids to hear their parents correct others (especially in their own home) if someone places moral values on foods, and teach them how to stand up for what their family believes in. Kids are going to get diet culture messages from the outside world no matter what, which makes it even more important to set the groundwork that there is another way to think about food and our bodies."
It's critical to do this, especially if your household has food allergies/sensitivities, sensory issues around food, or cultural/religious dietary specifications, so your child doesn't end up even more confused. "Explaining to children that all foods are good foods can also include the fact that there are some foods that may be dangerous to people with certain conditions," says Baker. "We can still be wary about using the term 'bad' in this situation as well, and instead use words like 'unsafe' or 'won't make them feel good.' For kids with allergies or sensory issues, you can find safe substitutions and make them feel included."
Introducing kids to the joy of different types of food early works well, too. Taking them grocery shopping, gardening your own fruits and veggies, and/or cooking and baking with them will help them appreciate how many people work to get food on our plates each day.
When You Need More Support
Unfortunately, the experts note that it is impossible to completely curtail the effects of diet and weight loss culture since this messaging is so pervasive. According to Simmons, some signs your child might be struggling include sneaking food, avoiding/eliminating food groups/types of food, expressing concern over food choices/portion size, not completing or skipping meals, pushing food around on one's plate, declining to eat around others, expressing value to weight/size/shape, body image talk (comparison/dissatisfaction), over-exercising, and making statements such as needing to "work off or restrict" extra calories consumed. "When the mentality of food intake becomes an exchange with counting calories in and calories out, there is a deeper concern for an eating disorder," she notes.
"If you notice any changes — however subtle — open up the conversation," says Baker. "Let your kids know that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and that it can feel really hard in the world we live in to make choices with food that feel good for us — and to ignore the outside messaging."
"Explain to your child that there are people who are experts in this area and can help them feel better," she continues. "Catching these types of concerns early is crucial and can prevent your child from developing an eating disorder. I recommend finding a therapist who states clearly that they are anti-diet, weight neutral, and HAES (Health at Every Size) aligned so that you can be sure that things such as diet culture and fatphobia are part of the discussion." Neither you nor your child is alone, and support is there should you need it.