Ah, diets. The word on everyone's lips. It's no secret that the world's obsession with weight loss has increased over the years, and it seems that every week a new article pops up warning that smartphones are making kids obese. Don’t these posts seem to follow you all over the internet, trying to whip up a panic about the state of kids’ health today?
Now, we’re not here to argue with the facts. It’s important to raise kids in a healthy lifestyle that supports their growth and development. We’re here to talk about the underside of this panic because its consequences can be just as deadly.
That’s right, we’re here to discuss the relationship between diets and eating disorders.
The problem is, very few are really talking about this connection. In a rush to get kids off their smartphones and onto diets and exercise plans for weight loss, it’s easy to forget the consequences of these actions on kid's mental health. Mainstream articles bury any messages about the dangers of dieting and the weight loss industry (currently valued at over 224 billion dollars) happily jumps in, ready to enjoy more profits from its consumers.
Yet, here’s a sobering reality. Kids and teens are suffering from dieting trends and the stats back it up.
Dieting is one of the strongest predictors of the development of an eating disorder.
Girls (some as young as 3 years old) who followed severe dieting were 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder than their peers. 1
Girls that practiced moderate dieting were still 5x more likely to develop an eating disorder than others who didn’t diet. 1
Dieting at an early age was highly predictive of the later development of an eating disorder. 1
The number of healthy kids going on diets has nearly tripled over the last two decades. 2
81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of becoming fat. 3
40% - 50% of 6 & 7-year-olds are unhappy with their bodies. 4
Over 86 million people have fitness or calorie-tracking apps on their phone, many of which allow kids as young as 4 years old to join. 5
Please let all of that sink in for a moment. It’s not underselling it to say that dieting is ruining the lives of kids and teens.
So, in the face of all that, what do you do?
1) Start examining your own relationship with food and dieting.
Let’s be honest. Kids are sponges that absorb everything, even the things we don’t want them to (remember the first time they picked up a curse word from you?).
When you talk about food or body image in front of them, they’re listening and shifting through to the underlying message. It’s these first seeds that can plant the ideas in their mind that food is bad, thin body types are the best, and different parts of your body should be hated. They don’t have to be exposed to these ideas at school or on social media; they’re picking them up from you. On TikTok recently, users are opening up about the ways their self-esteem was negatively impacted by the ways their parents talked about food and body weight as they grew up.
With this fact in mind, it’s time to dig deep inside and start making a change within yourself.
We’re not going to sugarcoat it. This will take a lot of work because, as adults, we’ve experienced years of harmful messages from society, friends, or family members about food and dieting. Refusing to pass this along to our kids requires us to break a generational cycle that’s been embedded in our minds since we were young.
Still, it is possible and necessary to make important changes and try these out:
Be conscious about the way you talk about food around your kids.
Do you catch yourself loudly lamenting about eating “junk food”? Food is morally neutral and it’s okay to enjoy it all with the right amount of moderation. Labeling certain foods as “bad” can actually increase your kid’s desire for them and could lead to behaviors like binge eating.
Be mindful of the emotions you attach to specific foods.
Do you catch yourself making comments about how it’s time for your “fat pants” because you ate a piece of cake that day? It’s necessary to eat but over the years we’ve learned to attach negative emotions to specific foods. Our kids pick up on this and can develop intense feelings of shame and guilt about certain things they eat.
Be aware of the things you say about your body.
Do you find yourself commenting on how much you want to change your stomach or hips? Society is constantly changing what it promotes as the ideal body type and there is nothing inherently wrong with any shape. Speaking negatively about the way your body looks teaches your kids that it’s normal to hate different parts of yourself.
Remember how we said that kids are sponges? When you learn to swap out old harmful patterns for healthy new ones, you create an environment in which your kid will soak up positive lessons about their relationship with food and their bodies.
2) Discourage your kid from dieting or believing negative messages about their body.
Let’s be real. It pretty much goes without saying that social media can be a tricky place for a young kid or teen struggling with low self esteem. Every time they get on an app, they can be bombarded with hundreds of photoshopped or fad diet-obsessed posts that send harmful messages to them and create a distorted body image. When left on their own, your kid may begin dieting. If this isn’t medically necessary or under the supervision of a trained professional, this can quickly spiral into an eating disorder.
So, what do you do as a parent?
Pay careful attention to your kid’s eating habits.
Has your kid suddenly started obsessing over how much they eat, dramatically cutting back on their normal food portions, or skipping meals? Have they started using a calorie or fasting app? While these behaviors don’t automatically mean that your kid has an eating disorder, they are warning signs that your kid might be heading down a path toward disordered eating. Step in, start asking questions, and guide them back toward healthy eating habits. At the same time, don’t be afraid to seek treatment with professional help.
Listen for changes in how your kid describes themselves.
Has your kid suddenly begun criticizing their body shape or using words like “fat” to describe themselves? While it’s tempting to respond quickly by interjecting “You’re not fat! You’re beautiful”, it’s important to avoid this knee-jerk reaction. These kinds of comments actually reinforce the idea that fat is bad and thin is beautiful. Instead, practice curiosity by engaging them with open-ended questions and end by emphasizing something special that has nothing to do with their body shape.
Connect your kids with body-positive accounts on social media.
Have you ever been tempted to pull your kid off social media to avoid the possibility of negative influences there? While it’s easy to demonize social media as completely bad, the truth is that it can also be a positive influence on your kid’s life when you find the right people. For every account promoting fat phobia, there’s another account encouraging healthy attitudes and habits about food. Connect your kid with these body-positive accounts and expose them to a new set of ideas that may help them unlearn any toxic messages they’ve received.
In the end, it’s clear paying attention and taking the right actions are key to preventing our kids from heading down the slippery path toward an eating disorder.
As parents, we have the power to shape our kid’s early relationships with food and body image before they start to establish their own attitudes and habits. The responsibility lies in our hands and it’s never too late to start getting involved. The sooner we intervene, the lesser the risk of unhealthy relationships with food. Let’s keep reminding ourselves and our kids: dieting is not glamorous. Eliminate negative talk about food or your body and (most importantly) encourage self-love by being a positive role model. Take the steps now- let's help our kids avoid developing an eating disorder!
Get an Aqua One smartphone so you always have access to what your kid is doing online. Your Parent Dashboard will show you an exact mirror of their activity. Now you can see if they’re interacting with harmful content or using a dieting app they didn’t tell you about!