Diet culture is influencing every one of us in so many ways. It has been for years. And most of us live our lives completely unaware.
That was my story too. I’ve worked through so much guilt and shame since I had my eyes opened a few years ago. Suddenly so many things make sense and it’s like I’ve found an inner freedom I didn’t know I was looking for.
And bonus, it allowed me to open my heart up to God again too. In a totally different way than I ever have before. So funny how all things things work and fall into place, isn’t it?
You see, diet culture is kind of like living with shackles on your brain. These shackles keep you from noticing the ways God is working in your life and it leaves you feeling ashamed of wanting to live differently. Diet culture keeps our focus on pleasing people instead of enjoying the joys around us.
Society’s current diet culture is the culmination of years of money and politics getting involved and skewing the science. It’s years of messaging being crafted to suit the needs of the few. You know all those messages that tell us we want to be thin (and look the same as everyone else)? The messaging that tells us we cannot possibly be healthy while living in a larger body? The messaging that fat shames and promotes the weight stigma that is now a significant source of health problems?
That’s diet culture weaving its way into the nooks and crannies of our lives.
Diet culture is a horrible thing.
That’s me putting it really really mildly.
And it’s not something you want influencing your kids.
Intuitive eating on the other hand rejects diet culture. It encourages you to listen to the messaging you hear from your body. You think with your body when you tune in to and honor your hunger and fullness. You think about what foods you enjoy eating (and which ones you don’t) and you honor that too. It teaches you to think about how foods and exercise make you feel and you align your choices with your personal goals, honoring your health the whole way. And it’s all God honoring. How we take care of our bodies should all bring us joy, never shame.
I know you want to protect your kids from the messages of diet culture, and while I’d love to say you can 100% do that, I’d be lying. But if you increase your awareness of where it lurks, you can put some pretty good boundaries and prevention tactics in place to empower them to grow up thinking freely and listening to the genius of the body God gave them, like the intuitive eaters they were born to be. Let’s explore some ways you can do that.
Watch out for the subliminal diet culture influences in media
You’d have to be living under a rock to not be influenced by the media in this day and age. Even Amish are exposed to media messages on billboards. When they stop in the local town gas station parking lot to sell their goods they’re exposed to store signs, advertisements on buses and semis driving by, and the ads on the radio station blaring for the travelers filling up on gas.
For those of us living in the more modern world with television, mobile devices, radio, and apps that show commercials every other tap unless you pay to upgrade, we are exposed to much more and far worse influences from diet culture.
Between diet pill ads on television, radio, or podcasts sponsored by them, meal replacement shakes ads showing slim bodies and tiny portions of food bombard you and your child’s minds with messages that teach you not to like your weight and not to trust yourself to know what’s right to eat.
And headlines showing ridiculous weight loss success stories give your kids the impression they will be praised if they lose weight. Isn’t praise one of the things your kids want most from you? All the fat free and sugar free marketing on foods labels sugar and fat as bad and enlists the fear factor to warn your kids to stay away.
Your family and friends have a heavy influence with your children
Family and friends love you and your kids right? So why would they possibly bring diet culture into your home? Would you believe me if I told you they were clueless about it? That they have no idea how what they are saying and doing is affecting your family? A well meaning grandma might push “just one more” cookie on your kids and Auntie Emma might look sad if you don’t try her new jello and cottage cheese salad. Or maybe Uncle Buck makes a comment about how chubby your little one is. All these things are seemingly harmless, but in reality they send profound messages of mistrust and shame.
Diet culture messages show up as food at the office meeting that you feel compelled to eat because your cubicle mate made it just for you (and she’ll feel bad if you don’t eat it). It might look like friends commenting in front of your kids about how fat they feel or wondering if a piece of clothing makes them look fat.
School is laden with diet culture messages too
This influence can leave you feeling helpless and frustrated sometimes. You have little control over, much less awareness of, commentary from teachers about healthy v unhealthy foods and body size and health matters. The posters in school are put up by administrators and school board members you have little influence over. They show and label children in larger bodies as unhealthy. Perhaps your school offers praise and rewards for certain activities like walking and step clubs.
I think perhaps the most astonishing of eye-openers for me was the time I read about a now-adult woman describing how she felt growing up in school. She was a child in a larger body and her school had posters all up and down the hallways with “anti-obesity” messages. The pictures of the kids on the posters looked just like her. She went to school every day feeling ashamed of who she was.
I think the best thing you can do as a parent is to look critically at the programs and messages being offered up by your school system. Keep the lines of communication open with teachers and attend those school board meetings, PTA’s, and use your vote to elect officials who have your child’s best interests at heart.
Doctors are not immune
What’s the first thing the nurse has you do after calling you back to see the doctor? Yep. She has you step on the scale. That sends a pretty powerful message that your weight is really important, doesn’t it?
It’s the same for your child. They get put on the scale and that result gets charted. It’s fine to use those charts, if those charts are monitored as they were meant to be monitored…for growth. the problems is that those charts are used to compare your child to other children. You’re left feeling like you need to limit snacks and treats with your child if they fall on the higher end of the spectrum. Growth charts are meant to ensure your child is growing and not falling off the charts (because this could indicate health problems). They are not meant to be a way for anyone, you or the doctor, to shame a parent or child. These charts are averages. That’s it.
And how about those suckers the doctors and dentists use to reward good behavior or taking the shot without crying? This implies sweets are rewards instead of the food you can have just because you want one. It also cajoles a child into ignoring their emotions.
You have perhaps the biggest diet culture influence in your child’s life
Eventually, you knew I was going to get to this one. You can’t ignore your own influences in your child’s life. With the diet culture riddled era you grew up in, you will find yourself labeling foods as good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, and creating rules around not eating sweets until their supper is finished.
Or maybe you place limits on the foods offered because of your own food preferences. I have my own example of this. You see, my mother hated fish. We never ate it growing up. Thankfully once I was old enough, I discovered I love fish. I in turn had some pretty major influences on my own kids. You know that fish I eventually learned to enjoy? Well, that didn’t happen until well after my own kids were old enough to have learned from my influence to not like fish too. 🤦
Other ways you might find your own diet culture influencing your children include:
- Play foods (aka treats or sweets or snacks like chips) only being available at parties or as part of a celebration). When you do this it puts these foods up on a pedestal as something to desire and something to limit or restrict if it’s not a party or celebration time. This type of thought process leads to obsession and binge eating.
- Telling our kids to finish all their food so they get dessert.
- Telling your kids to finish all their food because of starving people or because it was expensive. These are all teaching your kids to use external signals instead of internal signals of hunger and satiety about when to start and stop eating.
So what CAN you do?
The solution is simple, but not easy. It’s not easy. You have been engulfed in diet culture your whole life. For me, that was 46 years. I can’t expect it to go away with the snap of my fingers, and neither can you. Your child is 975 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than type 2 diabetes (1). In case you needed any more compelling reasons to fix this now. You will have to work at this. It’s a process. To get you started, here are a couple of tips:
- Enlist the whole family. Bring everyone on board as a united front against diet culture as your shared enemy.
- Create a “diet culture” jar. When one of you recognizes diet culture, write it down and put it in the jar. When you fill it, take the jar’s contents outside and use it as a fire starter (adult supervision required on this one). It can be incredibly freeing to send those messages off in a cloud of smoke.
- Take your “diet culture” jar to the next level and work with your kids to spin the diet culture observation into something positive or more intuitive. For example, if you noticed a weight loss add and wrote it down for the jar, post a larger message on the front of the fridge that reminds everyone how God is enough and we don’t have to prove anything to him (2 Corinthians 2:5).
- Create a diet-culture-free zone. I recommend this is the dining room table or kitchen or both (or maybe your whole house). In this zone, everyone takes a mindful approach to speak with care, think with care, and love everyone. A diet-culture-free zone doesn’t mean diet culture won’t ever sneak its way in. But you have your jar ready when it does.
Communication is key
- Promise to keep open lines of communication. Kids must feel safe to talk to you about anything. They need to talk about messages they are getting that make them feel bad. Because they need to be able to talk through this as much as you do. Be real with them and show them you are human and working through this with them too (age-appropriate of course).
- Play foods (aka treats or sweets or snacks like chips) should be available at times other than parties and celebrations. Our job is to make a variety of foods available, it’s our kids jobs to make their choices. When you trust them and don’t judge their choices, they really will balance out.
- Stop telling your kids to finish all their food so they get dessert. Instead encourage them to notice how their body is feeling as they eat. Out loud take breaks during your meals to check in with whether or not your bodies have had enough or are still hungry. Kids need to see these things in action since they are somewhat obscure.
- Stop telling your kids to finish all their food because of starving people or because it was expensive. Instead, encourage your kids to be mindful of the amount of food they put on their plates initially. And if they tell you they are full despite having a large amount of food on their plate, have open non-judgmental discussions about why they think they took so much food. Perhaps they made a distracted choice instead of a mindful one when they approached this meal. Perhaps they missed a snack earlier because they were too busy playing and so they were especially hungry and just overshot their expectations. Or perhaps they are still learning about what portion sizes of different foods will fill them up, this takes a lot of practice and will change from food to food.
I will say it again, diet culture is evil.
And my intention was to also inspire you with ways to protect those beautiful kids from it. And to empower them to stand up against it. I’d love to hear from you. What are you doing in your house to protect against diet culture and instead cultivate intuitive eating?