I recently encountered a children’s book called “Maggie Goes on a Diet.” It honestly made my skin crawl. Children are sponges that soak up and internalize messages all around them. From a dietitian’s perspective (and an empathetic human’s!), sending messages concerning dieting and children is not only unethical, it is dangerous.
The ‘ultra thin’ ideal is already heavily promoted by the media. In addition, kids will also hear more than enough from their peers on the need to be thin. So, Mom, Dad, Aunt, Uncle, Brother, Sister, and those who love children, let’s not contribute to this mess. Instead, let’s work on creating an environment where children feel supported in their current bodies. Let’s create a world where the perception of health is not dictated by your body size, but by…your actual health!
Here are few things that you can do to help your child build the resilience that will be needed to live in our diet obsessed world:
- Don’t promote dieting behavior. We surrounded by the thin ideal. We constantly see messages that dieting is the way to be thin and thin is the way to health and happiness. A study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders followed 111 girls and found that by age 5, half of the girls has internalized the thin ideal. The American Academy of Pediatrics actually advises against putting children on a diet. Instead of dieting, focus on health. No matter what size a person is, adopting healthy behaviors is beneficial.
- Don’t use exercise as a form of punishment for something you ate. You ate a cupcake/brownie/pasta/potatoes so now you must do run/do aerobics/attend barre class to burn off the calories that you ate. While I 100% support physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle, I do not think that exercise should be used to punish yourself for something that you ate. Show your child that exercise is fun and that exercise is something that we do because our bodies can and should move.
- Don’t comment on other people’s weight. Focus on weight as an aspect of diversity. Teach children that people come in all shapes and sizes. Teach them that people come in different heights and weights and teach them that a person’s size cannot tell you how healthy that person is.
- Enjoy ALL foods…and I do mean ALL foods. Live the example. A healthy eating pattern can include carrots and cupcakes. Teach your child to focus on variety and to pay attention to how food makes their body feel. This way they’ll learn that a diet that includes fruits, veggies, protein, whole grains, and the occasional cupcake makes them feel better than a diet that consists primarily of cupcakes.
- Keep everything in perspective. Kids’ bodies are weird at times. It’s part of pediatric growth patterns. Before a growth spurt, a child can appear pudgy. Remember, children’s bodies grow and change quickly. Their size at any particular moment in time does not necessarily mean that the child is in poor health.