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Parents, beware: How diet culture is harming our kids

As the health and wellness industry grows, more products, apps, supplements and diets continue to emerge for adults. But recently, these dieting tools have taken on a newer niche market — children.

While some of these nutrition devices and digital innovations can help empower a balanced lifestyle (something I’m all in favor of, as a dietitian), when it comes to children, we have to approach the topic of dieting very carefully. Since kids continue to grow until late teens and mentally develop until age 25, where does pushing this diet culture onto children cross the line?

You want your child to be healthy, but is putting them on a diet a good idea for their health?

What is dieting?

A diet is defined as any type of restriction in one’s day-to-day eating habits. This can take a variety of forms, including but not limited to:

  • Cutting out a food group
  • Eliminating your favorite food because it is perceived as “bad”
  • Counting calories or using another counting system
  • Intentionally skipping meals
  • Ignoring hunger signals
  • Doing a juice cleanse
  • Starting a meal kit
  • Eating for your blood type
  • Diets based on genetic testing
  • Buying and consuming supplements and protein shakes in place of food

Related: How to build a healthy relationship with food

How dieting impacts your child’s health

The American Academy of Pediatrics and The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics do not recommend putting children on diets regardless of weight or body mass index (BMI). Instead, they recommend letting children grow into their weight and encouraging lifestyle behavior changes.

Research shows that in children and teens, these consequences of dieting — and even talking about dieting — are much more pronounced.

The only exception to this recommendation would be putting your child on a therapeutic diet due to a food allergy, celiac disease or another severe health condition. This should be done by a doctor’s recommendation only.

Even in adults, dieting can result in disordered eating, unhealthy views of food, body image issues and a myriad of other negative health consequences. Research shows that in children and teens, these consequences of dieting — and even talking about dieting — are much more pronounced.

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Eating disorders

Eating disorders are currently ranked as the third most common chronic disease among the child population. The numbers of children and teens developing eating disorders continue to grow, and these eating disorders early in life can affect their health, both physical and mental, for years to come.

There is a whole body of research that shows kids who experiment with dieting, are surrounded by diet talk, are teased about their weight or are told to lose weight have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder, from anorexia to binge eating.

Nutritional deficiencies

Bottom line: your child needs a balanced diet full of all the nutrients that give them energy and encourage their growth.

Kids who diet are at a high risk of developing deficiencies, especially iron and calcium. Those with disordered eating habits are also at a higher risk of damaging their bone health and not having a menstrual cycle.

What often starts out as dieting in a “healthy” manner can evolve into severe dietary restrictions, skipping meals, starvation, over-exercising and purging through vomiting, diet pills or laxatives. All of these behaviors can put your child or teen at risk for significant nutritional deficiencies.

Stunted growth

Because children continue to grow throughout their teenage and early adult years, dieting during this phase can hinder their growth and development. Under-eating or restricting certain food groups has been shown to stunt growth in teens.

Bottom line: your child needs a balanced diet full of all the nutrients that give them energy and encourage their growth.

Body negativity and mental health

Society plays a big part in today’s dieting culture. For parents in particular, this is something to watch out for — you might be surprised by how much diet talk your child or teen absorbs from popular culture.  

Body dissatisfaction or dislike is a known risk factor for eating disorders. Studies in children have found that excessive preoccupation with weight could lead to irritability, difficulty concentrating, fear of weight regain, social isolation and body image distortion.

Children begin to build lifestyle habits and opinions of self at a young age. If they are told they need to lose weight or that they are “fat” — on top of all the physical, social and mental changes that come along with growing up — imagine how that could impact them in the future.

Related: How to talk to your kids about mental health

Concerned about your child’s weight?

If you are concerned about your child’s weight, talk to their doctor, consult the opinion of a dietitian and keep these guidelines in mind to encourage a healthy lifestyle for your child or teen:

  • Allow your child to grow into their weight. Their bodies are continually changing.
  • Incorporate them in planning meals and cooking.
  • Encourage your child to listen to their hunger and fullness cues.
  • Eliminate all types of weight talk around your child.
  • Do not make negative comments toward your child’s body, size or shape.
  • Model balanced eating habits and never forbid foods.  
  • Promote self-love, self-worth and body diversity.
  • Focus on health over weight.
  • Avoid the blame game.
  • Encourage your child to share their feelings about their body and size.
  • Take technology out of the bedroom and limit screen time to promote an active lifestyle and healthy sleep schedule.
  • Encourage family meal time and exercise.

If you feel your child is struggling with a mental health issue or eating disorder, talk to their doctor about therapy. Encourage your child to be open with you so you can help them find healthy coping mechanisms.

If you feel you live in a food-insecure area, seek help from your local food bank for help accessing healthy canned foods, fresh produce, and fresh or pre-packaged and canned proteins. If you have access to a nutrition assistance program (i.e. SNAP or WIC), consult dietitians or wellness coaches at these facilities for help.

Find a nutrition expert to help your family eat and live well.

About the author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN
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Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

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Parents, beware: How diet culture is harming our kids