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How diet culture can affect kids through their parents

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki is a parenting writer and a mom to three wild boys who keep her on her toes (and occasionally make her question her sanity). With over 15 years of experience in the parenting industry, she has more tips and tricks than Mary Poppins on speed dial. When she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can find her sipping on coffee, hiding in the bathroom for five minutes of...
Created on Oct 30, 2023 · 5 mins read

You’re scrolling through social media. Between the photos of friends and family, you’re bombarded with images of perfectly toned bodies and ads for the latest fad diets. You might shrug it off or feel a pang of self-doubt. You may even express that self-doubt out loud. But have you ever considered how these seemingly harmless messages and your response to them might affect your kids?

As parents, we all want the best for our little ones, including fostering a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. With diet culture making headlines more often, it’s crucial to understand its impact on our children and the ways we may inadvertently pass on these messages.

In this article, we discuss diet culture and its effects on people, particularly our children. We’ll also dive into how parents can positively influence their kids’ nutritional habits and protect them from the potentially harmful impacts of diet culture.

How does diet culture affect people?

Diet culture is a term that refers to societal beliefs and practices that encourage people to pursue a thinner body shape constantly. It encompasses everything from fad diets and weight loss products to fat-shaming and unrealistic beauty standards. This culture can harm people’s mental and physical health by promoting disordered eating, low self-esteem, and unhealthy relationships with food and our bodies.

Five ways parents influence their children’s nutritional habits

Food preferences: As parents, we play a crucial role in shaping our children’s food preferences. Children often mimic the eating habits of their caregivers, so it’s essential to model a balanced and varied diet, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

Intake patterns: Our children look to us to learn when and how much to eat. Regular meal and snack times and listening to hunger and fullness cues can help children develop healthy intake patterns.

Diet quality: The quality of the food we provide to our children matters. Offering a variety of nutrient-dense foods and minimising the consumption of highly processed and sugary items can encourage better diet quality.

Growth and weight status: Parents play a significant role in ensuring children receive adequate nutrients for growth and development. Monitoring your child’s growth and weight status with a healthcare professional can help detect potential concerns early on.

Attitudes toward bodies and food: Our children constantly observe how we relate to our bodies and food. By promoting body positivity and avoiding negative self-talk or dieting behaviours, we can help them develop a more positive outlook on their bodies and food choices.

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The impact of parents’ self-criticism on children

While our primary focus as parents is often on the messages our children receive from the world around them, it’s essential to recognise the influence of our own behaviours and attitudes. Being critical of our weight and appearance can unintentionally affect our children, shaping their self-image and relationship with food. There are various ways our self-criticism can impact our kids, but just as many strategies to foster a more positive and accepting environment for the whole family.

Modelling self-acceptance: Children are like sponges, absorbing the attitudes and behaviours they observe in their parents. When we openly criticise our weight or appearance, our children may internalise these negative messages and begin to scrutinise their own bodies in a similar way. By focusing on self-acceptance and demonstrating body positivity, we can model a healthier mindset for our children to adopt.

Avoiding diet talk: Engaging in diet talk or frequently discussing weight loss goals can create an atmosphere where appearance and body size are seen as paramount. This can lead children to place undue importance on their weight and appearance, potentially leading to disordered eating habits or body dissatisfaction. Instead, focus on conversations around health, well-being, and the enjoyment of food, emphasising balance and moderation.

Emphasising non-appearance qualities: Children must recognise that their worth is not solely based on appearance. By celebrating their achievements, talents, kindness, and other non-appearance-related qualities, we can help them build a strong self-esteem that does not rely on their looks.

Encouraging open communication: Creating an environment where children feel comfortable discussing their feelings about their bodies and appearance is crucial. Listen without judgment and offer support and guidance when needed. By validating their emotions and addressing concerns, we can help them navigate the complex world of body image and self-worth.

Practising mindful self-compassion: As parents, we should also be aware of our own self-talk and treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. By practising self-compassion, we can model for our children the importance of treating ourselves with the same respect and care that we extend to others.

How can I protect my child from diet culture?

To protect your child from diet culture, it’s essential to employ various strategies. Start by encouraging a positive body image, teaching your child that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that each one is beautiful and unique. Help them focus on the amazing things their body can do rather than how it looks.

Model healthy eating habits by enjoying a balanced diet yourself and emphasising the pleasure of eating without labelling foods as “good” or “bad.” Discuss media messages with your child, highlighting the unrealistic beauty standards and body ideals portrayed and explaining that these images are often altered and don’t represent the diversity of real bodies.

Finally, foster a love for movement by encouraging your child to engage in physical activities they enjoy, emphasising the fun and social aspects rather than treating exercise solely as a means of weight control.

As parents, we have a tremendous influence on our children’s nutritional habits, attitudes toward food, and self-image. By being aware of how diet culture can seep into our lives, we can take steps to promote a healthy and positive environment for our kids to thrive.

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