Parents shape the way kids think about food and their bodies forever.
"Oh, I can't eat dessert today. I have to be good."
How many times have you heard an iteration of the above? How many times have you thought something like that yourself, or said it out loud? Or used exercise as a form of punishment for something you ate?
That, in oversimplified terms, is a prime example of diet culture. Millennial parents grew up hearing the same from our moms, and they grew up hearing the same from theirs. But millennials have the tools, knowledge, and awareness that previous generations don't—and we're going to be the cycle-breakers when it comes to diet culture and protecting our own children from how harmful it can be.
Diet culture is rooted in fatphobia, but is often disguised as "health" and "wellness." While it may be an overgeneralization to say the word "diet" is problematic, it's a fact that the vast diet industry benefits from human insecurity and the prevalent fear of fatness.
Unfortunately for many of us, our introduction to diet culture began at home.
Maybe your mom signed you up for Weight Watchers when you were a child. Maybe your snacks and calories were restricted. Maybe your parents bought lots of "low-fat" and "sugar-free" snacks. Or maybe your exposure to fatphobia and diet culture was less direct like mine was. My parents never talked about our bodies or criticized what we ate, but my sister and I can't recall a single day where our mother didn't criticize her own (and others). While my sister, dad and I would chow down on a meat-and-potatoes dinner, my mother would restrict herself by eating something entirely separate that went along with whatever fad diet she was trying that month.
Children absolutely notice that kind of stuff, and worse—they internalize it. They mimic it. They begin to separate foods into two categories: "healthy/good" and "junk/bad." This is how the cycle perpetuates. Instead of embracing and enjoying food that you love, food that tastes good and fills you up both physically and mentally, food that brings warm memories to mind because it was made with love—we end up demonizing it.
The diet culture industry is a $71 billion dollar industry because it depends on the generational cycles of fatphobia and body insecurity to continue infinitely. It wants us to believe the stigma that health is directly tied to a certain weight and a certain body type (spoiler alert: it isn't), and it wants us to keep buying products and paying for programs that will keep us entrenched in those body insecurities forever. Full stop.
We can't control how our children consume outside influences like social media and the entertainment industry when it comes to beauty standards. But we are the protectors of our children's bodies, it's up to parents to listen, learn, and transform the way we talk about food in our homes.
A bigger lesson for our children in relation to diet culture is to realize just how deeply marginalized people are affected by it. Thinness is the beauty ideal. Particularly white thinness. Diet culture causes additional harm to people of color, people with larger bodies, transgender people, it contributes to bias in medicine, and it's rooted in ableism.
De-programming from everything I was taught (and guilty of perpetuating myself) has not been an easy journey, and I'm still learning ways to be the best role model I can be for my own daughters.
I've found that long as we're all open to learning, amazing progress will follow.
One way I continue to learn is by following anti-diet dieticians on social media. My absolute favorite dietician is Sammy Previte, who has a B.S. in Nutritional Sciences and a minor in Kinesiology, and one heck of an engaging social media presence. She's the founder of Find Food Freedom, and I've learned so much from her TikTok and Instagram videos. Fighting diet culture is a lifelong passion project for me, as someone who has battled binge-eating disorder and body insecurities my whole life. This passion deepened when I became a mother.
I reached out to Sammy to share some helpful tips and suggestions for talking about food, weight, and bodies with our children—it's all very valuable information for us cycle-breakers.
Give yourself grace, first and foremost
"Give yourself grace. We were all taught diet culture and it takes time to unlearn and remove the demonization of food from our vocabulary," Previte said. "There will always be another diet, another "weight watchers", another MLM. But with more and more awareness I am more hopeful than ever that the message that diets don't work is reaching the people that need it the most."
Shift the focus away from weight
"This can seem challenging when we live in a society that is so weight-centric and diet-focused," Previte said. "Our society promotes obtaining a smaller body size as a way to gain a higher status, which is what we would call diet culture. Reminding kids that their weight is not their worth is so important, and these reminders can be little things like letting them know that as they age, their body will change and this is normal and a good thing. Another key point to make note of is that weight is not a behavior. The determinants of health break this down to show that 89% of health occurs outside of the clinical space through our genetics, behavior, environment and social circumstances."
Don't moralize food
"The way we (specifically parents) speak to kids about food is so important in helping children build a positive relationship with food," Previte explained. "Diet talk around food can often start with the tiniest of comments like, "We only keep 'good' foods in our house.'"
Previte said this is an example of diet culture creeping into our daily vernacular, and it also attaches morality to food.
"These food labels while they seem small and insignificant, they are establishing the belief that one food is superior to another. This dynamic leads to the restriction of these 'bad' foods creating a binge-restrict cycle that can lead to yo-yo dieting," she explained. "When it comes to being mindful discussing food and nutrition with your kids, I would first ask you, how is your relationship with food? The best way to build a better relationship with food for your kids is to restore your relationship with food. Challenging your belief and educating yourself is the first step to instilling these principles in your kids."
Learn the difference between a diet vs. nutrition
"Slowly become aware of your verbiage," Previte advised. "Instead of 'healthy' or 'good' try 'nutrient-dense.' Instead of 'unhealthy' or 'bad' try 'less nutrient-dense.' Removing these food labels means removing morality associated with food. Food holds no moral value, and guilt is a moral emotion. If you feel guilt and shame when you eat certain foods this is something we would want to explore."
Practice intuitive eating—and think of it as self-care
"Find Food Freedom is rooted in the principles of Intuitive Eating," Previte said. "It was created by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch where the goal is to help you regain trust with your body, and to feel physically, mentally, and emotionally pleasant in your body that was lost with dieting. As Tribole and Resch would say, Intuitive Eating is a self-care framework of eating that integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought. It is also a weight-inclusive, evidenced-based model with over 100 studies to date."
Intuitive Eating includes the following 10 principles (the book was a total game-changer for me, and put me on the path toward healing my relationship with food and my body—you can buy it here):
- Reject the Diet Mentality
- Honor Your Hunger
- Make Peace with Food
- Challenge the Food Police
- Respect Your Fullness
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor
- Honor Your Feelings without Using Food
- Respect Your Body
- Exercise—Feel the Difference
- Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Being able to distinguish between genuinely helpful health advice and diet culture can be stressful. Previte encourages parents to look at the intention behind each program or piece of advice when it comes to diet and exercise.
"The intention of fad diets like intermittent fasting, Keto, and low-carb is intentional weight loss, based on external rules that build a distrust with your body," she explained. "At its core, all fad diets ingrain in you that you cannot trust your body and to ignore your body's internal cues that are literally just trying to keep you alive at the end of the day."
Education is empowerment, and empowered moms empower their kids. Now that's a cycle we can get behind!
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