Should You Put Your Child on a Diet? Not So Fast.

In an online parenting community I frequent, a mother recently expressed concern about her young daughter, noting that she ate more than her siblings and was in the 95th percentile for weight. Another parent recommended that the whole family go on a diet, either Paleo or GAPS, both of which restrict grains/carbs, saying that her own son went from “chunky” to lean on the diet she chose. Other parents applauded the idea.

This is of great concern to me as a psychologist who sees patients with eating issues, many of whom trace the first signs of their disordered eating to similar seemingly innocuous childhood diets.

The Impact of Restrictive Diets

The truth is, while eating a balanced, nutritious diet is important, especially for growing bodies, there is a fine line between diet and disorder. Research shows that a substantial portion of people who diet will take this practice to a pathological extreme. This can happen with children or first with parents, who will then model unhealthy behavior for their families.

In many cases, restricting food choices can lead to binge- or emotional eating—and an over-evaluation of the proverbial forbidden fruit. A recent article in the New York Times discussed how restricting children’s access to foods can backfire, making these forbidden food even more desirable to kids.

Actress Drew Barrymore made this point exactly in a quote in the February 2014 issue of New York Magazine: “I wasn’t a rebellious kid. Actually, I rebelled with junk food, because my mother was so psychotically healthy that I was like, I’m going to hide Doritos under my bed.”

Such backfiring can lead to weight-gain over time, observed in both adults and the younger set. And yet, dieting, as evidenced by the parent educator comment above, is what parents continue to do—restricting their own intake and/or their kids’, particularly when concerns about their children’s weight creep up.

The Role of the Obesity Crisis

The drive to control eating is largely fueled by our concerns about the obesity crisis. There is a growing body of research, however, that shows that being heavy is not the health catastrophe we thought previously.

We know that health can be independent of size –there are plenty of heavy, healthy people who are active and eat nutritious diets, and plenty of thin people who are sedentary and don’t have a healthy diet. What’s most important is eating a balanced diet and moving our bodies—not a number on the scale.

Worse for our children’s health than carrying extra weight is the stigma it carries. Kids who are larger may be bullied for their size. This type of discrimination can be psychologically damaging and lead to further weight gain.

Raising Your Child to Have a Healthy Body Image

So how should you feed your children? How should you make sure they’re healthy, without somehow encouraging disordered eating or body image disturbances? What should you do if your child’s weight starts to rise? What’s the best way to discuss food and weight at home?

Use these guidelines, based on my years of working with people of all ages, to help your children develop a healthy relationship with both food and their body.

  1. Focus on health. Talk about foods with regard to how they can nourish the body rather than their effects on their weight. Focus on health, not on calories, fats, or carbohydrates.
  2. Listen to your gut. Encourage your children to eat intuitively—eating when they’re hungry and stopping when they’re full. Forget the clean plate club. If you notice that you children are eating past fullness, trying serving smaller portions to start. Encourage them to stop when they’re full, reminding them that they can have more when they’re hungry again.
  3. Don’t eat your stress. Be on the lookout for emotional eating. Teach your children that “food is for hunger and talking is for feelings,” and be available to have any needed heart-to-heart talks.
  4. Avoid food banning. Don’t forbid specific foods; do encourage moderation with foods that are less nutritious. As even Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster now knows, “A cookie is a sometimes food.”
  5. Get moving. Encourage physical activity for the sake of health rather than weight control. Choose activities that are fun and engaging and that set your children up for a lifetime of fitness as a value in and of itself.
  6. Throw out the scale. Stop weighing yourself. Your child sees everything you do and seeing you weigh yourself has a significant impact on her perception of weight and body.
  7. Set a good example. Never judge your body in front of your child. Do not say negative things about your body or even glance in the mirror in a critical way.
  8. Appreciate diversity. Bodies and biologies are naturally diverse. Examine your own ideas about bodies of different shapes and sizes. Identify and challenge prejudice with your children.
  9. Be wary of media influence. It’s a good idea to limit access to television, magazines, and other sources of unrealistic body images. However, since that may not always be possible, take the time to explain how companies airbrush models and advertisements, and show your children images of healthier figures when you come across them.
  10. Play to the body’s strength. Make it a point to tell your children how beautiful their bodies are, and encourage them to be thankful for all its capabilities: “You can walk, you can run, you can clap, you can dance. What an amazing body you have!”

Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, is a clinical psychologist committed to helping people develop healthier relationships with food and their bodies. Her first book, Does Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation’s Fixation with Food and Weight, comes out June 1, 2014. A certified group psychotherapist, Dr. Rosenfeld has worked at treatment centers and universities around the U.S., including at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. She is active in the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, where she founded and chairs the Eating Disorder Special Interest Group. She is also certified as a personal trainer and indoor cycling instructor and previously served as the chief psychologist of the New York City Triathlon. Dr. Rosenfeld is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders; International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals; and National Eating Disorders Association. She lives and practices in southern CA, and is also licensed to practice in NY.

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