How You Can Protect Young People from Diet Culture

Elizabeth Hammond, MSW, LICSW on Jan 17, 2023 in Relationship and Family

I receive this question frequently from my clients, friends, and family members. Once they learn about the harm of diet culture, they immediately want to protect the young people in their life. And this makes sense! The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders estimates eating disorder behaviors occur in between 35-57% of adolescent girls. Eating disorder prevalence is 9% of the total population in the United States. And these are only diagnosed eating disorders!

The hard truth, though, is that we cannot protect young people from diet culture. It is everywhere. It’s prevalent on social media, in movies and television episodes, and in advertising across all platforms. Calories are listed on menus, and diet talk is often traded openly in our culture. Avoiding diet culture would be like avoiding the flu virus — near impossible if you need to navigate modern society.

What we can offer young people is a really good vaccine. When we as adults, speak positively about our own bodies, refrain from speaking about the size and shape of other people’s bodies, and speak neutrally about food, we can start changing the conversation around food and weight. If you are parenting a young person, studies show they are more likely to become intuitive eaters if you do not track their food, encourage diets, or talk about dieting yourself. A good foundation for a positive foundation with food can start with you, just in the way you approach food with your child.

That being said, sooner or later, young people will learn about dieting. Here are a list of questions you can ask a child about food and dieting that can help them build resilience against diet culture:

  • Do your friends at school talk about their bodies? Do they speak positively and negatively about their bodies? How does it make you feel when your friends talk negatively about themselves like that?
  • Food gives us a lot of benefits. Some foods are nutritionally dense, and some are really fun. What are some of your favorite fun foods? How would you feel if you didn’t eat those foods? What does it feel like when you eat a lot of those foods?
  • When you see people on TV or social media who say they have lost weight, what do you think and feel? Do you think those stories tell the whole picture?
  • It can be really hard to listen to your own body when people around you are dieting. How do you follow your own values around food when you’re with your friends?

This is not an exhaustive list, and if you’re concerned about the eating behaviors of a young person you care for, consulting with an intuitive eating dietician (especially one who specializes in pediatrics) can provide further guidance. But my hope is to show that ending diet culture in the next generation can start with you! When you heal your own relationship with food and learn to speak positively about food and your body, you can set a new standard for how young people see themselves.

Elizabeth Hammond is a Clinical Social Worker Website

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