Diet culture has seeped into the way we talk and the way we parent.
What is diet culture?
Diet culture is the idea that certain bodies and ways of eating are morally superior to others. Diet culture tells us in blatant and more subtle methods, that we all should be working towards looking and eating in these certain ways. The message is, we must use external rules and guidance to control our food and bodies to be morally acceptable.
Parenting Under the Influence of Diet Culture
These ideas have taken hold in the way we talk to ourselves, our friends, and our children. When we parent under the influence of diet culture, we may be teaching our children they can’t be trusted. We are teaching that their internal cues and desires can’t be trusted and their bodies can’t be trusted to gain and grow on their own. This is contradictory to supporting a child in gaining autonomy and trusting themselves in making wise and sound decisions. Diet culture erodes a parent in supporting their child in gaining self-confidence, awareness, and trust.
Just last week, I arrived at an event and someone told me the food they were eating was “undoing” their day’s workout. Hearing something like this is a stark contrast to the culture I am in at my anti-diet nutrition practice, but I’m also aware I’m the “odd” one out in the “world.” Language like this is fairly commonplace in our society. It’s almost as commonplace as saying, “How was your day?”
In our culture, it can take intention and courage to use language that is more in line with Responsive Feeding, rather than diet culture. For many, this is intuitive and may be the way you were raised. For others, this may feel very counter to the messages you are hearing around you or how your parents talked about food and bodies. Responsive feeding is an approach to feeding that puts the focus on the relationship between caregiver and child and strives to support the child’s internal cues, curiosity, and autonomy. You can read more about Responsive Feeding therapy here. Diet culture interferes with a person’s ability to tune in, responsive feeding supports it.
The language we use as parents can influence our children throughout their lifetime. Our language can influence our children’s internal dialogue. How we talk about food and bodies is extremely important and a piece of eating disorder prevention.
How We Talk About Food and Bodies
How we talk about food:
So often food is discussed in “good” and “bad” terms. Food is labeled “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Notice as you go through your day how often food is referred to in a moralistic way, or a person labels themselves in a moralistic way in relation to what they have or haven't eaten.
- “I was so ‘bad’ this morning. I ate a doughnut!”
- “No thank you, I’m being “good” today.”
- "I know this food is so bad!"
- "We're eating good now, because later we'll be bad."
Just noticing this moralistic language that is a part of our everyday rhetoric can be a concrete, initial step to shifting language. Just notice.
The next step may be to challenge yourself to not talk about food in moralistic ways. Food is food. What if instead, we experimented with discussing foods with its matter-of-fact attributes -- food is crunchy, chewy, tart, spicy, hot, or cold. Or, you might talk about food based on your opinion of how it tastes.
- “That is really yummy!”
- “That is too tangy for me, what do you think?”
- “Mmmm. I’m quite full. I must have been really hungry!”
We also might discuss food in how it relates to our memories or emotions.
- “This pie makes me so happy. It reminds me of my father.” “
- "I love watching you eat that ice cream. I can tell how much you enjoy it.”
- "This warm soup makes me feel better after such a hard day."
Food and emotions are linked and we can model that this is true and acceptable.
How we talk about our children’s eating:
Have you found yourself trying to control your child’s eating?
- “Slow down.”
- “You’ve eaten a lot, you don’t need more.” “
- You have only eaten carbs today, you need to eat some chicken.”
What if instead, we shifted our language to language that models trust?
- “Is your tummy full?”
- “You make good decisions, I trust you.”
- “What is your favorite food on the table?”
- “You can stop eating when you’re full.”
- “Does nothing look good to you? How can I help?”
- “I can tell you love that. What else would you like with it?”
- “Listen to your body. If you’re done, you’re done.”
How we talk about our bodies:
It’s all too common for people to make negative comments about their bodies. Frankly, It can even be odd for someone to talk positively about their body. However, when we talk negatively about our body in front of our child, we are modeling that this is okay and typical. We are even modeling that not looking a certain way is tied to acceptance.
The first step may be to work on refraining from saying negative comments about your body in front of your child. By not modeling this behavior, we are no longer normalizing it.
The next step may to be to experiment talking positively about your body in front of your child. You might experiment with trying phrases like these:
- “My arms are strong. I can pick you up!”
- “My nose looks just like my mom’s and your nose looks just like mine!”
- “I’m grateful for my belly. You grew inside!”
- “Something I’m proud of is how fast my mind can do math.”
- “I like the way my hair looks, it reminds me of how my mother used to wear her hair.”
- “I really like my outfit. I feel great in it!”
How we talk about others’ bodies:
It’s fairly commonplace to hear people making comments about other people's bodies, whether that is someone on TV, an acquaintance, or a friend or family member. Our children are listening and watching. If we criticize others’ bodies or put value on certain bodies over others, even if we don’t know the person, we are modeling this behavior to our children. We are modeling that it’s okay to comment on others' bodies. We are also modeling that people need to look a certain way to gain our acceptance. A child may wonder, “What if my body starts to look like them? Will I still be loved?” There are so many more interesting attributes about a person other than the size or shape of their body. Instead of focusing on weight, what can you model for your child about how to talk about other people? What do you value about people and how can you model that for your child? This may be their skills, their personality, or their interests.
How has diet culture influenced your parenting?
Language is important and diet culture has no place in how we talk to and in front of our children. How has diet culture influenced your parenting?
By just starting to notice and asking yourself this question, you will be making great strides towards diet-free parenting.
Want to learn more?
Here are some resources to learn more about diet free parenting.
- The Spooky Language of Halloween
- Let's Talk About Sugar
- Diet-Free Back to School Resources
- 5 Tips to Nurture Body Confidence in Teens
- 3 Steps to Keep Your Holidays Free of Diet Culture
Sunny Side Up Nutrition Podcast Episodes:
- Ep. 15: Breaking the Family Diet Cycle with Rachel Coleman & Tina Laboy
- Ep. 35: Parenting Amidst Diet Culture with Virginia Sole-Smith & Amy Palanjian
- Ep. 43: Raising Intuitive Eaters with Sumner Brooks
- Ep.51: Fostering Positive Body Image in Teens with Shelley Aggarwal
- Ep 54: Redefining Healthy Cooking with Julia Turshen
- Ep. 58: Boundary Setting with Parenting Your Teen with Signe Darpinan