Diet Culture Dangers: Could your Child Be Heading for an Eating Disorder?

WHEN I TALK ABOUT “DIET culture” with clients in my office, I realize that initially most of my clients don’t really understand what I mean. It makes sense because dieting, body dissatisfaction and unrealistic eating patterns are commonplace in our society.

According to a 2015 research review in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the sociocultural idealization of thinness was the primary contributor in eating disorder development. Just as we educate our children about consent and the dangers of drugs, parents can help kids understand the perils and illusions of diet culture.

Diet culture isn’t a scary, dark alley you can avoid. Diet culture is everywhere, even in our safe spaces. Our kids are already getting dangerous messages. Cartoons villainize some foods and put hero capes on others. Children’s movies often perpetuate weight stigma and bias. Schools send home reading assignments with food and body shaming messages. The pediatrician recommends we “watch” our child’s weight when they’re on their biologically appropriate growth curve. The church youth group members start talking about weight loss and counting calories. Seeds of body distrust and food fears are planted quite early in diet culture.

The dangerous messages of diet culture can prompt our children to make seemingly benign changes in their behavior; yet some of the “I just want to be healthy” changes can negatively impact their growth, development and mental health.

These common yet dangerous changes can let us know when our kids need more support around trusting their own bodies and living in a disordered diet culture:

Specific Food Restriction, Avoidance or Fear

When a client tells me his or her child no longer wants a certain food or type of food, I immediately get concerned. It’s one thing for a child to recognize their stomach gets upset after an ice cream sandwich if the child has lactose intolerance. To skip a once-loved food because it’s been deemed “unhealthy” or has “too much sugar” is something very different. A sudden dietary change like avoiding rice, pasta or meat sauce (among many other restrictions) at dinner is a reason for me, as an eating disorder specialist, to start asking more questions. Did the child just complete a health class, watch a compelling documentary or witness others who influence the child start to abstain from certain foods as well?

Food restriction, without medical necessity (like a medically confirmed food allergy), in most cases stems from diet culture. When a child restricts or fears certain foods, it’s very possible that child heard the false beliefs that dieting, food avoidance or having a thin body leads to health. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and research has, for decades, supported that dieting behaviors increase the risk of eating disorders. According to a study published in the BMJ, adolescents who engaged in moderate dieting were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, whereas those who engaged in extreme dieting and restriction were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not engage in dieting at all.

Rigid Exercise or Tracking Behaviors

Many of the families I work with have active children. They may engage in dance, karate, gymnastics, baseball or a whole host of other activities the children enjoy. However, some kids are adding exercise that they don’t necessarily like but feel pressured to add to their daily routine to be healthy or change their bodies. When a client tells me about going to their sanctioned school sport practices but feels like it’s not enough and adds five days of running as well, I start to worry. What’s prompting this child to be rigid with additional exercise when just last year the joyful movement provided by their sport was enough?

It’s not just exercise that can become rigid and excessive. When adolescents report tracking miles completed and calories burned, that’s also a recipe for danger. Many have learned about tracking, whether for movement or caloric intake, from health classes or those most influential around them. Tracking, much like stepping on a scale, can trigger behaviors that increase the risk of disordered eating behaviors while undermining young people’s trust in their ability to fuel and care for their own bodies.

Too Much Time on Social Media

Calorie and fitness tracking apps aren’t the only dangerous tools our kids can find online. Social media is playing a role like never before. A 2017 study in the journal Body Image reported that engaging in appearance-related social networking sites use, particularly on Facebook and Instagram, was associated with body image issues. Of course, there are positive messages on social media, but with the diet industry and diet culture continuing to perpetuate the thin ideal, celebrity endorsements of diet products, and a narrow lens of health, we have to keep track of what our kids are visually consuming.

Heading for an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders aren’t a choice or a phase, they’re legitimate illnesses that require physiological and psychological treatments. And they can start very innocently with leaving out certain types of foods, under-portioning at meals and snacks, or not eating after a certain time. If these dieting behaviors go unnoticed, more restrictions or behaviors can ensue leading to chronic disordered eating patterns and clinical eating disorders.

Like adults, children may suffer from a number of life-altering and life-threatening eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder and orthorexia. If you’re concerned that you or your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, there is hope and help, and you can find more information at the National Eating Disorders Association’s website.

As parents, we can help our kids build a strong foundation to trust their bodies, not fear food, and become resilient in our very normalized diet culture. When I talk with families about this in my office, I tell them that once you truly see diet culture for what it is, you can‘t un-see it. We can help point out these dangerous parts within our culture while teaching our kids that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. In addition to offering a variety of foods and flavors around the family table, we can show our kids that our homes are the truly safe zones.

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